Bread Play! February 25, 2010

Ever since I learned how to make challah, I’ve had this child-like propensity for playing with flour and testing my not-so-nimble fingers to make different bread shapes, taking my arthritic imagination to task.  It was snowing heavily one day in early February and this kind of weather would have most kids rushing out to build a snowman and hurling balls of snow.  I’m not a kid, I dislike snow, so I stayed indoors.  Yet I was in a playful mood and wanted to shape something aimlessly – certainly not a good thing when you’re trying to save your ingredients because they’re suddenly expensive these days.  My ingredients did not really go to waste, as you can see:

bread pizza2                                              bread pizza3

Swirls, twists, the letter S, a collar, a baseball bat or a rabbit – there are several shapes you can experiment with.  These shapes were produced using a pizza recipe from Peter Reinhart, but you can take your own favorite pizza or bread recipe and create these shapes.  My “collar” bread on the left came out the way I imagined it, but I was slightly disappointed with my “S” breads.  What I did wrong is that I did not roll out the strands thinly enough.  Because this pizza recipe has yeast, I should have made the shapes ultra-thin because they rise once they’re snuggled in a hot oven.  I lost the “S” there so my breads came out looking more like uneven body parts.  What I mean by body parts…er…

bread pizza

For this “collar”, I divided my dough into two and rolled out each one into a strand thinly – to a length of about 16 inches.  Then alternating the strands, I cross them over, somewhat like making a hair braid, but only with two  strands.  Braid them tightly, not loosey-goosey style, because once in the oven, they’ll balloon up!

If you look closely, my strands are not even – they become smaller at the ends (see left side).  That’s what happens when I get impatient rolling out dough into strands.  When the dough is difficult to handle, it’s hard to stretch them evenly.  I have good days though when dough can work like a charm – it’ll go wherever you want to take it.  A lot depends on various factors – the room temperature, the kneading, the combination of ingredients, etc. On those days when dough acts like a temperamental child,  I should take more time to evenly distribute the dough’s thickness from one end to another.  For this bread I was happy, even if I could not get the strand to be uniformly sized from one end to the other.

bread pizza 4  For the S bread on the right, this is a shape I got from Peter Reinhart’s book.  Again you divide your dough into strands, the number of which depends on how many “S” breads you want to make.  Roll them out very thinly – and evenly.  A 12-inch strand is good, but in this case, I should have rolled it out longer.  Working both ends simultaneously, you take the end of each strand and roll it as you would do for cinnamon rolls or a jelly roll; one end going outwards (away from you) and one end going inwards (towards you).

I tried looking for a YouTube demo.  There were some on other shapes but nothing for this S-shaped bread.  Here’s a CRUDE drawing I did using Word’s drawing tools.

s shape drawing

I did say it was crude so forgive me!

Keep the knots or curls as close together as possible.  Some bakers coil it around only once – you can do that too.  In fact, the picture above shows that there’s only one coil, but it started out with many coils like my drawing on the left.

I find bread sculpting relaxing…you would too if you like rolling up your sleeves and working your hands into dough!  It reminds me of the days I used to play with clay.  Now, if we could only have bread in as many colors as clay.  With food coloring products, that’s not impossible to achieve!


Go Chicken, Go Ginger! February 20, 2010

I still have to find a way to eliminate my wasteful habits when it comes to food and leftover ingredients.  What kinds of ingredients do you buy that end up being thrown away because you forgot about them? Guilt gets the better of me when leftover ingredients turn green or collect mold and I have to chuck them.  Onions and garlic are not a problem – I use them almost everyday, but these are the ingredients that spoil because of my negligence:  celery, fresh herbs, ginger, scallions and cucumbers.

combined wasted ingrdients

I am less wasteful with cucumbers and scallions, but fresh herbs, celery and ginger are the ingredients that I tend to use once and forget to use again. 

Let’s take ginger.  At times, I’m able to find small pieces so when they end up in the trash, I don’t feel as guilty.  One day, the supermarket sold only large chunks and I was too embarrassed to ask the manager if he’d sell me only half (he would have booted me out of the store).

Someone gave me advice about freezing fresh herbs, but I wasn’t sure I could do the same with ginger.  So after using a small quantity, I wrapped it well in plastic and put it in a place in the fridge where I would notice it right away so I could use it again.

This chicken with ginger recipe that I found on the Net is a genuine “quickie.”  I tried to retrieve the link but could no longer find it.  All I remember is that it had the words “rec food recipes and Edoc” in the URL. 

This meal triggered fond memories of great meals served at Chinese restaurants (those were the days I ate out a lot because cooking was anathema to me).

The recipe is good for one person, so I doubled the quantities.  When I say “2 skinless boneless chicken breasts”, this is the quantity I’m referring to:

chicken ginger4

Supermarkets don’t sell one breast, you’d have to go to a special butcher shop for individual quantities, but this supermarket tray with 2 breasts should be enough for two people, with leftovers for a second meal.

You’ll need these ingredients:

2 skinless boneless chicken breasts

5 tbsp vegetable or peanut soil

1 cup thinly sliced onion rings

2 tbsp minced garlic

3 tbsp finely shredded ginger root (tip:  if you don’t have time to shred them, slice them into ultra thin strips and then mash them with the back of a wooden spoon to let their juices out)

4 tbsp soy sauce

4 tbsp red wine vinegar

2 tbsp sugar

3 stems scallions, chopped as in the picture below


Cut chicken breasts into small bite-size pieces (about 3/4 inch in diameter).  Heat oil in a skillet.  Add onions and garlic and cook until onions turn golden brown.  Add chicken pieces.  Stir frequently to avoid the chicken from sticking.  Cook until chicken is no longer pink.

Blend ginger, soy sauce, vinegar and sugar.  Add this mixture to the chicken.  Cover and cook for 3-5 minutes (no harm in doing it for 5 minutes – you want to make sure that the chicken is well cooked).  Stir in green onions.  Serve with rice.

ginger chicken1     ginger chicken3

Another tip:  I thought that the sauce wasn’t enough so next time I will double the sauce quantity – adding more soy sauce and red wine vinegar.  I would make sure though that the sauce does not overpower the taste of the chicken and ginger. 

This is a good meal, what I’d call a dish for all seasons.  To add some creative flair, you could add chopped cashews and use red onion (or sprinkle sesame seeds on top before serving).

As for minimizing waste, the next time I try a recipe with an ingredient that I don’t use often, I’ll have a list ready of 2 or 3 recipes that use this same ingredient.  I think it’s what business gurus call “forward planning.”


Does Your Baking Stone Resemble a Pre-Historic Map? February 17, 2010


Nothing to worry about!  Mine looks like this:


baking stone 1


It’s been used about five times and already it’s looking like an artifact that’s been freshly dug out of deep dirt and grime.  It may look disgusting, but think of it this way:  when a woman has more wrinkles, that means she’s got more character.  When a baking stone has marks and stubborn stains, it could probably give your baked goods that extra flavor.  And character.  You may not believe this, but once I scraped off a piece of hardened pizza crust and put it in my mouth.  It tasted like the world’s best potato chip!  No hyperbole there…


In my haste to use my baking stone for the Norwich sourdough I made last month, I read the instructions too quickly.  What stayed in my mind were two things:  when using it the first time, bake the baking stone for a good hour inside a hot oven.  This will make it sturdier.  I managed to do that.  Second, never expose the stone to cold water.


After I used it, I would wait for it to completely cool, and then use a potato cleaning brush to scrape off excess crumbs after which I put it back into the oven.  Yes, you can leave it there almost permanently.  For baked goods not requiring a baking stone like cookies and cakes, you can just set the baking sheet on top of it.  But be careful about putting heavier pans or pots on top of it.


This morning my brother asked me, "are you sure we can’t wash that baking stone?"  Typical of someone who knows that a quick reading of instructions has its pitfalls, I took out the box and re-read the instructions.  I also read people’s comments online about how they cared for theirs.


So everyone, this is the consensus:

  • you can wash your baking stone but only with hot water (I wouldn’t wash it after every use; I’d wash it only occasionally or when it’s beginning to look like a war zone instead of a stone)
  • never use soap.  Why?  Most baking stones are porous and soap will penetrate the stone, giving your baked goods a soapy taste (once in awhile I enjoy soaps but not in my food)
  • take off any crusts or leftover "stickies" with a good metal spatula
  • wipe your baking stone with a damp cloth

I read that someone put her stone in the dishwasher.  She said it came out fine.  I’ll pass on that one!


I bought my baking stone from Keilen Ltd, a division of Indiana-based Columbian Home Products LLC.  I’d like to reproduce – verbatim – what their care instructions are:



The traditional way to clean your pizza stone is to brush or scrape it clean and wipe it with a dry cloth to remove any crumbs.  If you prefer to wash your stone, never use soap, as the residue will accumulate in the unglazed stone itself.  Use hot water only, after the stone has been allowed to cool.  Your stone will darken with use.  This is normal and does not affect the baking performance in any way.



Hope that eases your fears.  And did I say you could leave it inside the oven?  Yes, do leave it there, unless you absolutely need to take it out.  Frequent handling may cause an accident (of the worst kind). 


In a previous post, I said that my pizza tasted great when I baked it on the stone, but I’ll say it one more time:  homemade pizzas taste so much better with this clever invention!



baking stone2


Reinhart’s Portuguese Sweet Bread: a Sure Winner! February 14, 2010

My dentist says I have an incurably sweet tooth.  That explains why she goes to great lengths to clear the plaque off my ivories.  I floss twice a day, mind you, but my sweet tooth negates all the diligent dental care I pay for.


One day, after having just finished my workout at the gym, I had this craving for a “sweetish” kind of bread.  I went scavenging on the Internet for a simple recipe, but none caught my fancy only because of information overload.  After 20 minutes, I gave up – there was just too many sweet bread recipes to choose from. 


Then I remembered.  I had Peter Reinhart’s Bread Baker Apprentice (BBA).  Why don’t I try that? I settled on his Portuguese Sweet Bread (page 215 of BBA).  His recipe called for three kinds of extracts:  lemon, orange and vanilla.  I only had pure vanilla extract.  The store didn’t have the lemon and orange extracts so I bought Dr. Oetker’s artificial lemon and orange flavors, which come in small vials. 


One thing that intrigued me was Reinhart’s advice about this bread:  He said:


“Because of the high amount of sugar, the dough will brown very quickly, but don’t be fooled into thinking it is done.  It will get darker as the center gradually catches up with the outside, but it will not burn.  The final color will be a rich mahogany brown.


I was skeptical at first.  To me, bread shouldn’t be baked for that long.  I’m fixated on the “22 minutes” and unless I’m baking sourdough, 30 minutes would ruin the bread’s texture.   I reluctantly followed his advice of baking it for 50-60 minutes and Reinhart, the master bread maker, was right!  (Don’t argue with success, as someone used to say).


My loaves did have that rich mahogany color that he promised, and they were the exact color match of his photographed loaves.


sweet port1

This recipe is in my “keeper” file.  I can see how it would be the perfect Easter treat.  The combination of orange, lemon and vanilla tasted like spring.  You should have been at my place while they were baking.  The sweet scents pervaded every nook and cranny, lingering long enough after they were sliced and eaten.  Baking this bread gave my place that fresh and fruity ambiance!


The deep brown color of the crust was a stark contrast to the crumb.  Despite the long baking time, the bread was soft inside.  The crust wasn’t tough.  Here’s what the bread looked like after slicing:


sweetport2                         sweetport3

Peter Reinhart recommends the sponge method for this bread which you make 90 minutes ahead.  It calls for 1/2 cup of unbleached bread flour, 1 tbsp of sugar, 2-1/4 tsp of instant yeast and 1/2 cup of water at room temperature.  I wish I could post the recipe here, but I don’t think it would be fair to Reinhart. His book is copyrighted, and like a good citizen, I can’t violate the laws.  I’m sure your local library has it.  If it isn’t, ask your librarian if he’d do an inter-library loan for you.  The book’s title is Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart, ISBN:  978-158008-268-6.


If you really want the recipe and can’t find it anywhere, e-mail me at  I’ll be happy to send it to you.  It’s just unethical to post it for the whole world to see (not that the world visits my blog!)


The other ingredient you should use is powdered milk.  Reinhart in fact almost always recommends powdered milk because he says it gives breads a distinctive taste and that once you use it, you’ll never want to use liquid milk again.  I’m not sure about that.  I think it’s because using powdered milk versus liquid milk will not drench the dough, making it difficult to handle.  I’ve worked with certain doughs before that seemed like an acrobatic feat.


You’ll love this Portuguese Sweet Bread.  Dr. Oetker’s artificial extracts, by the way, worked wonders.  They’re definitely not a bad idea if your runs out of the pure lemon and orange extracts.





Zucchini, Carrots & Mushrooms: Budget Meal # 7 February 10, 2010

Filed under: Budget Meals — sotsil @ 7:06 pm
Tags: , , , ,


When you hear “zucchini” do you get excited?  I don’t, but I try to eat it maybe once every two months.  I like it for making muffins or bread because it gives these baked goods sufficient moisture (they have a high water content).  You know that feeling, don’t you:  “I don’t mind eating it as long as it’s tucked in somewhere…”

Yet, I make it a point to eat it…even if it’s in full view!

I’ve decided that zucchini is the kind of vegetable that tastes better when combined with other vegetables or other ingredients like beef or pork.  On its own, it has very little character or taste.  Carrots even taste better.  Zucchinis are a plain Jane. 

But before we turn up our noses…

They are packed with Vitamins A & C, potassium and calcium.  A nutrition web site said that the flavor of zucchini is better when it is less than six inches long.  (Oh…okay).  It can grow as large as a baseball bat, but are flavorless when they get to that size.  It’s the best vegetable you can put on your plate when you’re counting calories (and pennies).  Choose the darkest green you can find, and please…don’t peel them.  The skin is where you get all that wholesome goodness. Half a cup of uncooked zucchinis is equivalent to 13 calories.  Now…that’s a very good reason for falling in love with this Plain Jane, isn’t it?

Here’s a completely vegetarian dish that won’t break the bank.  One thing good about zucchini is it does not fluctuate in price with the seasons, unlike broccoli that seems more expensive in the winter.

This budget recipe is rather simple.

You need:

3 zucchinis (about 4-5 inches long)

2 medium carrots

1/2 cup of sliced mushrooms (you can use the ones in a tin)

2-3 tbsp onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

canola or vegetable oil

beef broth (next time I’ll use oyster sauce diluted in a few drops of water for more flavor)

salt and pepper to taste


Cut up your zucchini, carrots and mushrooms as shown in the picture.  Heat oil in a large frying pan (about 2 minutes).  Sauté onions and garlic (1-1/2 minutes).  Add your veggies in this order:  carrots (cook for 2 minutes), zucchini (cook for 2-3 minutes or until tender but not soggy), mushrooms (another 2 minutes).

Pour your vegetable broth (or oyster sauce) just before serving.

Unless your fellow diner(s) adore vegetables, I don’t think this dish is going to be an instant hit or evoke fond memories…so you may want to have a luscious and evil dessert on stand-by.  Reward them for giving this meal a try.


Italian Orzo Turns Into Greek Salad February 6, 2010

Filed under: Meals — sotsil @ 2:16 pm
Tags: , , ,

The food court in our neighborhood mall was renovated last year and new food stalls that serve Thai, Indian, Lebanese and Korean food have joined the older kiosks.  The ambience in this food court is warmer, and everything is sparkling clean.  This is why it has come alive with more office people, retirees, and everyday shoppers who like to nosh and quaff and indulge in their favorite pastime:  people-watching.

But the verve and dynamics that happen in this food court isn’t the purpose of this blog post.  In a roundabout way, I wanted to say that my brother and I took our usual Wednesday off from the gym and went to the food court for lunch.  We tried this salad and sandwich stall.  I forget the name.  They offer the popular concept of three salads with a sandwich.  I saw this orzo salad that I had never tasted before and chose it with two other salads (tabouleh and Ceasar’s).

Orzo – as I understand it – is Italy’s answer to rice.  If it has to be translated, the best one would be “barley.”  In North America, we put it in the pasta class, despite its rice shape,  but it is made of semolina wheat. 

I hadn’t bought orzo before but after that first taste in the food court, I decided it would be included in my “repertoire” of dishes.  I liked the taste.  So off I went to my Greek supermarket (which also generously stocks up on Italian products) and bought a small bag of orzo.

orzo 3

Blame it on poor photography skills, but the words above the Colavita image says “from the fields of Molise.” Looking up Molise in Wikipedia, it’s a small region in the south of Italy which made news back in 2002 when the earthquake struck.  Molise used to be part of Abruzo but is now a separate entity, and has a population of 300,000.  Tourists are attracted to the region for its tranquility and mountainous character.  “A gentle pace of life” is how Wikipedia describes it.  I was hoping to find something about how they grow orzo in the fields but no such luck.

This Colavita brand is a dream.  I’ve seen other orzo brands that looked like arborio rice or flat barley.  This brand makes for a “manageable” salad.  I say manageable because once I had mixed in the ingredients and poured the vinaigrette, they came apart beautifully.  No sticky or gummy texture.

I looked up some recipes on the Internet (there’s a truckload) and settled on an orzo that’s made with ingredients typical of Greek salad:  feta cheese, kalamata olives, red wine vinegar, bell peppers and cucumbers.

Result?  ah, mamma-mia!  If I hadn’t reminded my brother that we’d leave some for dinner later, he would have cleaned the whole casserole.  He savoured every spoonful, hardly looking at me and unable to make small talk.  He was totally focused on those morsels. So was I.  When my brother likes something I make, it shows.  Of course I don’t have to say that it inspires me even more to explore recipeland on cyberspace.

The trick to this Greek orzo salad is to drain the orzo completely after it’s cooked and then set it aside to cool.  I put it in the fridge for maybe an hour or two.  Another trick is to thin-slice your vegetables and to pit your kalamata olives and cut them into small pieces so that you don’t smother the orzo – delicate enough as it is – with large pieces of the ingredients.  It has to stand out, and not get buried down by the other ingredients.  Notice how tiny the other ingredients are in the pictures below.

combined orzo

I loved this so much I went to the trouble of looking for the recipe again on the Net so I could leave a thank you note.  It was posted by Shaina Olmanson of Minnesota who runs her web site called Food for My Family.

Here’s Shaina’s recipe (from:

Greek Orzo Pasta Salad

16 ounces orzo pasta
3 medium tomatoes
2 cucumbers peeled
1/3 green pepper
1/3 red pepper
1/2 medium red onion
4 ounces pitted kalamata olives
8 ounces crumbled feta
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons oregano
1-1/2 teaspoons basil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
cracked pepper

Cook pasta to al dente according to package directions. Drain and rinse pasta with cold water. Refrigerate until cool. Dice tomatoes and peeled cucumbers. Thinly slice peppers and red onion. Drain kalamata olives. Add vegetables and feta to large mixing bowl and stir to combine. Mix in cooled orzo pasta.
Whisk together olive oil and red wine vinegar. Mix in oregano, basil, salt and pepper. Pour into pasta and stir to combine. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Makes a lot. I’d halve the recipe if it was just for our family dinner

(note:  I took her advice which I highlighted in bold.  I cut the recipe in half, using only a cup of orzo, and it filled my casserole to the brim!).  So if you’re feeding one other person and like to have leftovers, 1 cup of orzo is plenty.  Be sure to use half of the quantities mentioned above).


Filled Buns: Budget Meal # 6 February 2, 2010

Filed under: Budget Meals — sotsil @ 10:39 pm
Tags: , ,


petit pains1

A good friend gave me this recipe more than 10 years ago.  It’s called petits pains fourrés – which means “small filled buns” (the verb “fourrer” in French means “to fill”).

When I read the recipe, I decided it was doable.  When I was still working, I used to tell my colleagues that I could not, would not, make recipes with a list of ingredients a mile long.  They knew that if a recipe had more than seven ingredients, there was no point trying to convince me to try it.

Those were the days when I had zero appreciation for cooking.  I was what my French Canadian friends would call a “barbare” (a barbaric person) because I had the habit of eating out of cans or going for take-out.  They found it strange that a person who loved to eat didn’t want to cook.  It was a disturbing contradiction.

I never made the petits pains fourrés.  The recipe got buried in my junk bin and was relegated to oblivion.  Then after the holidays, I was clearing out my kitchen cupboards and voila – there it was!  I remembered my friend.  She must have wondered whether I gave this one a kick at a can.  I did make them early this year and will make them again.  They hit the spot.  This recipe’s a keeper!

If you have young kids who are ravenous after school, they’d grab these buns and gobble them up in a nano second.

You’ll need:

Half a pound of lean ground beef (more if your kids bring home their friends)

1 small can of Cream of Mushroom (I use Campbell’s)

1 tbsp mustard

Onions (optional)

12 salad rolls (I used burger buns, so the filling was enough only for 2 large buns)

To make the filling:

1.  Pre-heat oven to 350 F.

2.  Brown onions and meat.  Drain excess fat.

3.  Add soup and mustard.  Stir until you obtain a smooth texture.  Reduce heat and let simmer until thickened – about 15 minutes.

4.  Fill rolls with meat mixture (like filling in open faced sandwiches).

5.  Bake rolls until they turn golden brown (about 6 minutes).

A great budget meal.  It will cost you:

$3.50 for a tray of ground beef (you’ll probably use only half)

$1.50 for the soup (if it’s on sale, you could get it for under a dollar)

$ 0 for the mustard (you might have it in your cupboard.  Or next time you go to McDonald’s, pick up a few mustard packs).

$0.20 for onion

That comes to a total of $5.00 – well, slightly over $5.00.  My calculation is based on two adults, or 1 adult and 2 kids, one eating session.  If you want leftovers, you’ll have to add more ground beef and soup!

What does one say, in French, after eating des petits pains fourrés?  “Ayoy, je suis bourrée” (Oh goodness, I’m stuffed).