14 January 2012

How to Get Your Yeast to Rise When It's Cold

January: because it's winter cold and winter dry in my house, yesterday I found myself struggling with uncooperative challah dough. It would not rise. It wouldn't! And I couldn't find a naturally warm place anywhere in my house to coax that dough into submissiveness. But after combining two different tricks, I finally managed to get that darn dough to rise. True, the challah ended up slightly denser than usual, but it tasted no less delicious.

Trick 1: Use Your Tea Kettle

Not everyone owns a tea kettle. But if you do, this trick is the first thing you should try so that you can both moisten and heat your dough simultaneously. Your dough should be rising in a bowl covered with a damp towel. Fill your tea kettle with water, put it on the stove, and bring it to a shrieking boil. Now lower the heat to low or second-to-lowest. Put your covered bowl of dough next to the tea kettle and drape the damp cloth over BOTH the bowl AND the gently steaming tea kettle spout so that the steam enters the bowl of dough. Make sure nothing flammable is near a flame. Leave kettle and bowl together like that for an hour or more.

Trick 2: Use Your Oven

Some cookbooks say to stick your dough in the oven and turn the pilot light on. I have never had an oven with which I could do that. So instead, I braided my challah, placed them on a baking sheet, covered them with a very damp cloth and put them on the stove (above the oven). Then I turned on the oven to about 190ºF. The oven warmed the stove top but not too much. After an hour, the challah had risen quite decently. Then I turned the oven up to 375º, stuck the challah in, and baked it until perfect.

Trick 3: Use Your Bread Machine

I always have too much challah dough to fit into our bread machine, but if you're just making a single loaf pan worth of dough—and you own a bread machine—use your bread machine. Set it on the dough cycle. Not only will the bread machine stir and knead your dough for you, it will warm and rise your dough for you. Even in the cruelest winter months, your dough is guaranteed to rise! When the dough cycle ends, take the dough out, shape it how you like, preheat your oven, and bake the bread the normal way.

Trick 4: Wild Ideas

OK, this is just wild speculation on my part, but what if you stuck your bowl of dough on top of an electric blanket, heating pad, or hot water bottle? Maybe that would work! Or you could get into bed with your family or your pets and stick the dough bowl under the sheets so that your body heat could…

…never mind. Stick to the first three tricks.

13 January 2012

Applesauce Cake

Some of you have been waiting for this recipe a LONG time. This is my Famous Applesauce Cake: my whole wheat, vegan, moist, delicious, disappears-in-minutes-at-any-party pretty round cake. Why is this cake so famous? Because it is the only cake I ever bake. It's laughably easy! And sorta healthy! This cake has served me well for over a decade, and if you check out the list below, you will see why that's so amazing.

Here is a list of cakes that I have come to realize I don't enjoy:

pound cake
coffee cake
carrot cake
lemon meringue cake
angel food cake
cake with raspberry filling
normal fluffy chocolate cake
any lemon cake
cakes with frosting (except for whip cream frosting)
devil's food cake
red velvet cake
whoopie pies

Despite the alarming length of that list, I still find plenty of cake to my liking. But obviously I'm very picky about my cake, something you wouldn't know if you had met me in Japan, where I made surreptitious weekly trips to the local Cake-Ya-San (so beautiful!) I don't like cake that's very sweet, fluffy, or airy, but that is the current style for so many American cakes.

So. I discovered this Applesauce Cake when I was 20, just learning to cook on my own and living in the shimmering cool beauty of the Pioneer Valley in Western Massachusetts, land of apple cider doughnuts—which in my opinion outshine all other U.S. doughnuts to an embarrassing degree. Knowing my 20-year old self, I probably copied down the recipe from some random cookbook in the Jones Library. When to my surprise and delight the recipe actually worked, I copied it into my journal, returned the book to the library, and didn't think much about it until the next time I was required to make a cake. Over the next decade I came to discover how rare and special this cake really is, and oft have I wondered which cookbook birthed it. If you ever find out, please tell me so I can give credit where credit is so obviously due.

Sarah's Extremely Famous Applesauce Cake

1/2 Cup canola oil
1 Cup sugar
1 1/2 Cup unsweetened applesauce
2 Cups whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350º.
Mix oil and sugar together. Add applesauce. Mix the dry ingredients together, and add them to the wet stuff. Beat until smooth. Grease (and flour if you want) a bundt pan. Or, if it's non-stick, don't bother. Pour batter in evenly and bake 45-50 minutes.

I know what you're bringing to your next pot-luck!

12 January 2012

Vegetarian Baked Pasta Casserole, Better Than Almost Any Lasagna

To understand why I started making this dish, you need to know that I am 36 weeks pregnant. I am hungry all the time. ALL THE TIME. And thirsty. Luckily, it's Clementine season, and that tends to solve both problems at once. But before we bought the Clementines, Julia told me the same story over and over about how when she was in her last weeks of pregnancy, she got the nesting instinct and just started obsessively making lasagna over and over again and freezing it. Finally, after the baby was born, she and Doug enjoyed this fabulous lasagna for weeks.

I have heard this story at least 10 times, no joke. That lasagna must have some sort of symbolic meaning deep in Julia's pscyhe, like it's the Lasagna of Life or something.

Anyway, I entered the latest phase of my pregnancy, and Julia was about to visit, and inevitably my brain turned to lasagna. As in, "Going to have a baby soon, better make some lasagna." That is called conditioning, folks. But there were some problems. First, I do not enjoy meat, so I always make vegetarian lasagna. Second, over the last decade I have learned that actually I do not like making lasagna; it is a complete pain. I like eating lasagna, I like buying delicious, well-made vegetarian lasagna (so rare!), but the whole cooking process just annoys me no end.

So I invented this dish as a lasagna substitute. It is much easier to eat than lasagna because you don't have to worry about layers slip-sliding all over the place when you cut into it. It is also easier to put together, and if you like tasty vegetables as much as I do, it is much easier to fill with different vegetables than lasagna is. In short, I think this dish I invented is BETTER THAN LASAGNA. Except for the Lasagna of Life that Julia made—obviously that tasted better than any other food in the entire world. Too bad it is gone forever.

Baked Pasta Casserole

Serves 8-12

1 lb. whole wheat bow ties (farfalle)
1 15 ounce can tomato sauce
dried basil and dried oregano
1 onion, chopped
handful of frozen pearl onions (optional)
2 handfuls frozen chopped peppers (optional—or cut up peppers yourself)
several handful fresh spinach leaves
1 Cup or more grated cheddar cheese
1 Cup or more freshly grated Parmigiano or Pecorino Romano

Broccoli Version: 3 to 6 stalks broccoli, chopped really small and boiled or steamed until tender
Mushroom Version: 48-ounces any mushrooms, washed, stemmed, chopped into small chunks, and sautéed until tender

1. Cook pasta in a large pot until tender. Drain and return to pot.
2. Meanwhile, in a large fry pan sauté chopped onion five minutes.
3. Add tomato sauce, healthy shakes of spices, pearl onions, and peppers. Cook a few more minutes. You can add sautéed mushrooms to the sauce at any point if there’s room in the fry pan. Turn off heat.
4. Preheat oven to 375º F.
5. Mix sauce, cooked broccoli or mushrooms, and several handfuls spinach into the cooked pasta. Stir to evenly distribute ingredients.
6. Take out a 9x13 glass Pyrex pan. Pour 1 half of the pasta mixture into the pan in an even layer.
7. Sprinkle the cheddar cheese lightly and evenly on top.
8. Pour the 2nd half of the pasta mixture on top of the cheddar cheese layer.
9. Evenly sprinkle the Parmigiano or Pecorino Romano over the top.
10. Bake in the oven 10-15 minutes or until the cheese on top has melted, bubbled, or browned.
11. Either serve at once or let cool on stove, cover with aluminum foil, and stick in the refrigerator. Lasts about a week in the refrigerator. Obviously, if you're PREGNANT, you should freeze it.

10 January 2012

Baby Bok Choy

I'm probably the worst bok choy cook on the planet. While I love bok choy at good Chinese restaurants, my own efforts invariably result in watery or over-cooked bok choy…usually both. After a while I figgered that me and the Big Bok Choy have irreconcilable differences, so I gave up trying.

Then George returned from Costco with a bale of baby bok choy.  I told him flat out, "I cannot cook bok choy." But he was all, No Sweat, and he cooked it himself. Apparently baby bok choy are way way easier to make tasty than adult bok choy. George's batch tasted so delicious that among the two of us and Doug and Julia we polished off every last choylet. And Bonus: bok choy has twice as much calcium as any other vegetable with a lot of calcium (I think maybe kale takes 2nd place).

Baby Bok Choy
several baby bok choy, washed, and halved lengthwise
juice of 1/2 lemon
vegetable oil

1. Heat up some oil to medium high. Cook the baby bok choy cut side down until browned, around 5 minutes.
2. Flip 'em over. Turn down the heat. Add the lemon juice to the pan, and cook until they become all soft and translucent.

If you serve these beauties to the right sort of guests, they will be super impressed and not realize at all that you put almost as much effort into these bok choy as you put into microwaving a bowl of peas. Good for you, you slickster!
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