Baking used to be the bane of my culinary existence.
Every year when the crisp, fall weather turned gray and chilly, I'd seek comfort in the spicy sweet warmth of the kitchen. The holidays, especially, compelled me to bake batch after batch of cookies, cakes and brownies - most of which were a dismal failure.
There was the year I made brownies for a hundred or so students. After the first barely scorched batch stuck to the pan, I scrapped the brownies and switched to cupcakes using an old family classic - chocolate Kahlua cake. It wasn't until I sent Brandon to school with two flats of cupcakes that I realized I was feeding alcohol-laced baked goods to middle school kids.
That was the last time I baked for Brandon's students. (For the record, my cupcakes were a hit.)
But make no mistake, I could just as easily screw up Kahlua cake. After years of experience stirring together box cake mix, sour cream, chocolate chip cookies and Kahlua (recipe to follow), my success rate was pretty grim. I'd say 7 out of 10 times the cake would stick to the Bundt pan, be it non-stick, stoneware or silicone.
I blame the equipment.
Whenever I would drag out the Baker's Dozen chocolate and my jadeite mixing bowl, Brandon raised his eyebrows. "You do know you make the world's hardest brownies, right?"
I started to offer a sheepish, "I can't bake," every time I gave someone my homemade biscotti.
After Emi was born I found myself spending more time cooking, but the art of baking eluded me. One day I tried making French baguette, and the result was so hard and tasteless not even our dog Chase would eat it. "Never again," I swore as my baked rock crashed to the bottom of the trash can.
But then my "baby" cousin Christina visited for the weekend - and she came bearing bread. A beginning food blogger herself, she'd stumbled upon a recipe for No Knead Bread in the New York Times Dining & Wine section as well as an accompanying video. Christina's round loaf dusted with wheat bran was the perfect blend of chewy and crusty. Golden brown on the outside, white and holey on the inside - it looked and tasted like actual bread! I was impressed.
Inspired, I decided to make another attempt at baking bread. I watched the video a couple of times, then read through the recipe before carefully going over Christina's email with its helpful notes.
"Make sure to use lukewarm water for this- not TOO hot, because that'll kill the yeast," she warned. "I don't use a thermometer, but just stick my pinky in the water to see if it's cool enough. Microwaving your water for about 45 seconds seems to do the trick."
Luckily she specified what kind of yeast to use - active dry yeast - or I would've been hunting all over town for "instant yeast." Another useful hint: let the dough rise in the oven or microwave (power off) if your house isn't 70 degrees or warmer.
She also suggested covering the dough with parchment paper or a silicone mat for the second rise, rather than another tea towel. Once the required two hours had passed, it was easy to simply lift the towel out of the bowl and roll the dough into my beloved Le Creuset dutch oven. I found using a damp towel helps more cornmeal or wheat bran stick to the towel and less dough.
I couldn't have been happier with my bread. I didn't even have to oil the dutch oven - the loaf just slid out with a flick of the wooden spatula. It was golden and crisp, and just like Christina's it looked and tasted like bread you buy in the store! And we're not talking Wonder bread here. It was on par with the artisan bread sold at Trader Joe's.
Wrapped in a plastic bag, my bread lasted several days before going stale. Cut in wedges or sliced thinly with a good, sharp bread knife, I was able to make salami & butter sandwiches like the ones Brandon & I ate in Paris.
I experimented with the next two loaves.
A few days later, I roasted a head of garlic by cutting the top off and drizzling it with olive oil before sticking it in the oven wrapped in foil at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes. After it had cooled, I added it to a batch of freshly made bread dough and some 20 hours later I had roasted garlic bread.
By then I was already figuring out how to make sun-dried tomato bread. I took jar sun-dried tomatoes that can be found in most grocery stores, and chopped about a quarter cup in my mini-prep food processor. I used a little bit of the olive oil the tomatoes were packed in to smooth out the paste, then gently folded it with the bread dough. The result was a sweet, tangy bread great for toasting with fresh mozzarella or a bit of drizzled garlic-infused olive oil.
These days, I no longer buy bread at the supermarket. This incredibly easy recipe has opened up a whole new, culinary world to me. Maybe, I can bake.
1 German chocolate cake mix with pudding
1/2 cup Kahlua liqueur
1/4 cup vegetable oil (or less)
16 oz. sour cream
12 oz. chocolate chips
Combine all ingredients, and pour into a greased Bundt pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes. Blot the top of the cake with a paper towel to absorb any oil, and let cool for a couple hours before taking out of the pan. Dust with powdered sugar before serving. Note: Cupcakes take only about 35 minutes, but if you're serving to children omit Kahlua.