Breakaway Cook

Great Bread in Five Minutes? Not Quite, But Close

cornbread625

I often find that, after coming home from a  long trip, I want to start making a few really basic things: stock and a subsequent big batch of soup, a fresh batch of salts and toasted spices, and . . . bread. Somehow it’s important to fill the house with aromas to really let me know that I’m back.

I’ve been rather smitten with a somewhat recent cookbook purchase called Artisan Breads in Five Minutes a Day, by Hertzberg and Francois. The title refers not to the total time required to make a loaf of bread, of course; it refers to the really wonderful “nudge” of making a big batch homemade dough, refrigerating it, and slicing off a pound here and there to shape and bake whenever the fancy strikes. Once the initial labor of making the dough, letting it rise, punching it down, etc. is accomplished, great fresh bread is a short step away. It works. And the main reason it works is that pre-mixed, pre-risen, high-moisture dough keeps in the fridge for a long time. As a bonus, it’s no-knead, the yeast doesn’t need to be proofed, and you don’t need a starter or sponge. It’s about as low-fuss as it’s possible to be, yet it yields fantastic results. My kind of project!

I don’t always have bread dough in the fridge, of course; I still buy plenty of La Brea whole grain, Tartine country loaf, Brickmaiden wheat, and anything from Della Fatoria. But if I’m in the kitchen with a few extra moments and a small surplus of energy,  I make an effort to whip up a quick five-pound batch of dough. It’s really not hard at all.

My favorite bread so far in the book is the broa, or Portuguese corn bread. It has a supercrunchy exterior, yet the interior is chewy and really corny. It makes brilliant toast.

It’s rare that I bother to write out exact instructions for a dish, but since bread is notoriously hard to wing, here it is, with a few minor adjustments that have improved it for me. I don’t think Hertzberg and Francois will mind. Give it a try.

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Broa (Portuguese Corn Bread)

Makes two two-pound loaves, or four one-pound loaves. The recipe is easily doubled.

  • 3 cups lukewarm water
  • 1.5 tablespoons granulated yeast (1.5 packets; I buy mine in bulk from the local hippie store, and just keep it in a jar in the fridge)
  • 1.5 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1.5 cups stoneground cornmeal (I use fancy-ish polenta, medium grind, but regular old cornmeal probably works fine)
  • 5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I use King Arthur, purchased at Trader Joe’s)
  • Cornmeal for pizza peel and dusting the top

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1. Mixing and storing the dough: Mix the yeast and salt with the water in a 5-quart bowl, or a lidded (not airtight) food container

2. Mix in the remaining dry ingredients without kneading, using a spoon, a 14-cup capacity food processor with dough attachment, or a heavy-duty stand mixer with dough hook. If you’re not using a  machine, yo may need to use wet hands to incorporate the last bit of flour (I just use a sturdy wooden spoon).

3. Cover (not airtight), and allow to rest at room temperature until the dough rises and collapses, approximately 2 hours.

4. The dough can be used immediately after  the initial rise, though it is easier to handle when cold. Refrigerate in a lidded (not airtight)  container and use over the next 10 days.

5. On baking day, dust the surface of the refrigerated dough with flour and divide the dough into two pieces, one of which goes back in the fridge for later. Dust the piece with more flour and quickly shape it into a ball by stretching the surface of a the dough around to the bottom on al four sides, rotating the ball  a quarter-turn as you go. Allow to rest and rise on a cornmeal-covered pizza peel for 40 minutes.

6. Twenty minutes before baking time, preheat a baking stone to 450F, with the stone placed on the middle rack. Place an empty broiler tray on any other shelf that won’t interfere with the rising bread.

7. Just before baking, sprinkle the loaf liberally with cornmeal and slash a cross, “scallop,” or tic-tac-toe pattern into the top, using a serrated bread knife. Leave the cornmeal in place for baking; tap some of it off before eating.

8. Slide the loaf directly onto the hot stone. Pour 1 cup hot tap water ito the broiler tray, and quickly close the oven door. Bake for about 30 minutes, until deeply browned and firm. Smaller or larger loaves will require adjustments in baking time. Allow to cool a bit before slicing.

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Jumpstarting Your Ruts

basiles hummus625

We’re saying our goodbyes to Amsterdam, surely among the most livable places I’ve ever been. There’s nothing like a month in a new place to “reset” the brain’s habitual patterns, to see the world in a totally new way.

I had quite a bit of free time to read in Amsterdam, which is my definition of pure luxury. Two books, both on the wild and woolly frontiers of contemporary neuroscience, really stood out: Rapt, by Winifred Gallagher, and The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge. There is so much interesting news coming out of neuroscience that it makes one’s head spin (or, actually, remap!), but one common finding in both books is the brain’s ability disrupt old patterns by creating new ones, through sheer repetition. This is something that everyone knows intuitively: do something enough times, and it becomes second nature.

Think of your brain as a snowy hill, to use the metaphor of Doidge. There are lots of ways to go down the hill, but the more you follow the same path, the deeper those tracks become, and the stronger the tendency to take the same route every time. Deep ruts make it hard to go any other way after a while. If the rut is a good habit (brushing and flossing before bed, for example, or exercising regularly), that’s good — you reinforce your good habit every day. But if the rut is bad — and you can name your own bad habits here — or it’s something you want to change, it can take a monumental effort to get out of that rut. The answer, says Gallagher and Doidge, is to not try to break old unwanted habits, but simply to form new ones, which will supercede the old ones through sheer use. Plastic brains can consciously form new habits/tracks, and THEY will become dominant over time.  It’s a self-enforcing mechanism.

As I was reading I couldn’t help but think about cooking, and ruts. Forming good habits in the kitchen (keeping knives sharp, keeping your work area uncluttered and very clean, using equipment you really like, regular shopping at good markets/having good ingredients around, etc.) makes you want to cook. They are conscious nudges, habits that just make it easier. Cooking, once it becomes enjoyable and stress-free, automatically replaces bad habits like eating heavily processed foods (often because you’re too ravenous to do anything else), outsourcing your palate to industrial food concerns, eating on the run, in the car, grabbing whatever purely as fuel to brute one’s way through the chaotic and perhaps neurotic day.

DECIDING to eat better, to cook better, is, of course, the necessary beginning, but it’s the conscious use of attention to change your daily habits that counts most. It might start with deciding to have something tasty and healthy for breakfast, even if it means getting up a few minutes earlier and retraining yourself to feel hunger in the morning (if, for example, you never eat breakfast). Or it might mean prepping  something simple the night before to have for lunch the next day, something wholesome and good. Dinners, too, can be very simple affairs, starting with some good salads and some new good ways to cook vegetables.

It took me a long time for me to figure this out, but once I did, it just kept reinforcing itself. The secret to cooking well is to do it often.  And to tweak it to your own particular taste, not that of cookbook authors, tv chefs, or anyone else!

If anyone has good “nudges” that make you want to cook more, please speak up!

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(The photo is a baba ganoush (cooked and then pureed eggplant, with spices) made for us by my friend (and very talented cook) Basile at his lovely home in Amsterdam. It had a sublimely creamy texture, with plenty of smoke from the garnish of smoked paprika. )

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The Green Market, Dutch Style

fm5-cheese-dude1 Amsterdam Noordermarkt olive oil dude

 The Noordermarkt in the Jordaan is essentially the Dutch version of San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza FM, with bicyles. People flock to the market, conveniently located just a leisurely five-minute stroll from our flat, from all over Amsterdam, and indeed from outlying cities and town as well. It’s a real social scene, so much so that a book (in Dutch) was just published about it. 

Noordermarkt Amsterdam garlic

Highlights are the cheeses, grains, organic meats (lots of unusual cuts, including a super-pounded schnitzel; I started off cooking it the standard way, but somehow couldn’t avoid breaking away by giving it a cumin/couscous crust, and deglazing the pan with pomegranate molasses, purchased from the local friendly Turkish market), freshly made crepes (wow), and breads. Dutch bread is really quite insipid (voluminous, airy breads seem to be the standard), but these breads were exceptional, so we’ve been stocking up every Saturday.

We inevitably had a coffee and a slice of appeltaart at nearby Cafe Winkel; everyone seems to conclude it is possibly the best in the country, and I’m inclined to agree. It was our very first food in Amsterdam, thanks to the lovely Tatjana, who not only picked us up from the aiport, but who brought us there as soon as we landed at the flat.

Noordermarkt Amsterdam grains

Alas, we’ll miss it this Saturday, since we’ll be camping in Kroller-Muller (with umlauts over the o and u) and cycling around the national park there.  More on that soon, I hope!

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