Homemade Pita Bread

April 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

I had a horrible experience, an embarrassing experience, a humility-inducing experience with homemade bread about 20 years ago. It was a “loaf” of rye bread that more accurately could be called an anvil. It defied some law of physics in how something so small could become so dense.pita bread

I swore off baking yeast breads for … oh, I’d say 15 years. And then, I let the embarrassment go. I’m a different person, I said. I can make different bread. I can make bread and be successful at it.

I’ve made a bunch of different bread overs the last five years or so. Various takes on wheat, white, whole grain, pizza, focaccia, sourdough—made with my very own sourdough starter! And it’s all turned out pretty tasty, too. I admit I need to work on my loaf shaping, but that will come with practice.

There’s one recipe for which I don’t need to shape up my boule-making skills, and that’s for pita bread. It’s flat and round, slightly puffy in the middle. I thought I could handle that pretty well. And it turns out it’s as easy as it seems. Why everyone everywhere isn’t making pita bread everyday, I have no idea. Get after it, people.

Pita Bread, adapted from The Moosewood Cookbook
1 cup wrist-temp water (about 95-100F)
1.5 tsp. active dry yeast
1 tbs. sugar or honey (I used raw sugar)
1 tsp. salt
3 to 3.5 cups flour (1 cup can be whole wheat)
a bit of oil
extra flour

1. Combine yeast and water in the bowl of a stand mixer and let it get foamy over the next 5 minutes.

2. Add sugar/honey and salt and stir until dissolved.

3. Put bowl onto mixer with a dough hook attachment, add one cup of flour and start to combine on low speed. Slowly add in two more cups of flour and continue to let the dough need in the bowl over the next 3-5 minutes. If it seems wettish, add in a sprinkling of flour as it mixes. You’re looking for a smooth dough.

4. Put dough in an oiled bowl and roll it around in there until the dough surface is oiled, too. Cover with a clean tea towel or plastic wrap, set in a warmish place (75F is good) for about an hour or until the dough has doubled in bulk. It could take up to 1.5 hrs.

5. Punch down dough and set it onto a clean and floured surface. Kneed it by hand for 5 minutes. Cut the dough into equal-sized pieces, anywhere from 6 to 12 segments. I made 8 because it was simple, and the pitas turned out just the size I wanted. . Knead each little dough ball for a minute or so (I turned each 30 times and figured that was about right). With a rolling pin, roll out each dough piece into a VERY THIN circle (or near circle, it doesn’t matter exactly). You WILL need to throw down extra flour. DO make sure the dough is no more than 1/8 inch thick—otherwise you end up with a pizza crust, no kidding. Let the dough circles rest for 30 minutes. After I rolled out each circle I placed it on a half sheet-sized piece of parchment, four per sheet overlapping slightly. It’s ok, don’t worry.

pita dough circle

NOTE: This circle-making process takes some time. By the time you are done rolling out the whole batch, the first circles have already been resting about 15 minutes. So at this point set the timer for 15 minutes, get your oven ready and start moving toward the next step.

6. Preheat oven to 500F. OR, if you have a silly oven like mine that will not go above 450F (Ggrrrrr…), set it to 450F and work with it. Place a sheet pan in the oven to warm up a bit then brush it with oil or cornmeal to prevent the dough from sticking. OR, place the dough circles on parchment and slide them onto the baking sheet, fitting as many dough circles in the oven as you can without them touching. Due to the craziness of my oven I am able to fit just two dough circles, which were placed on the parchment.

7. Let the circles bake for 6-8 minutes or until the circles puff up and are lightly browned and, more importantly, look like pita! At 450F, 8 minutes was the perfect amount of time. As soon as one batch is done, remove from the oven and wrap the pitas in a clean but damp tea towel and place them in a brown paper bag. Close the bag for 15 minutes. This keeps them soft(ish) for a day or so. After a day I would transfer them to a plastic bag.

golden pita bread

As an experiment, roll out one dough circle a little thicker than 1/8 inch and bake. Whereas the thinner circles puff up like you’ve filled them with helium, you’ll notice the thicker circle doesn’t puff up much at all—if at all. It’s ends up more like a pizza crust. Which tells me why not have this same recipe handy for when you want to make pizza?

stacked pita breads

Give pita a try and let me know what you think!

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Let’s Grow Mushrooms

April 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

As a child I never liked mushrooms. Strike that—I never had the opportunity to eat mushrooms because my parents didn’t like them. Entering adulthood I just stayed away from encounters with mushrooms, picking them off the late-night pizzas ordered with friends at college and steering clear of them on Chinese food take-out menus.

Time has moved on, and so have my taste buds. I now love mushrooms. The earthier the mushroom, the better. Every shopping trip sees me sorting through the bins of different kinds. What a silly kid I was, I think as I marvel at the fresh and dried fungi.

This is the year I stop relying so heavily on store-bought mushrooms and I attempt to grow my own. With the popularity of “grow-your-own” everything—from bean sprouts to dinosaur kale to heirloom tomatoes—several different companies now offer grow-your-own mushroom kits. There are two that I know of:

Back to the Roots: Probably the most well-known of the mushroom-growing kits, the Back to the Roots kit promises to produce up to 1.5 pounds of pearl oyster mushrooms in about 10 days, and can produce at least two crops worth of mushrooms—maybe even three crops. Each box, which is shaped like a cardboard milk carton, contains 100% recycled plant-based waste which performs as the growing medium. Just open the lid, mist with water, and set it by a sunny window. How convenient to grow indoors!  www.backtotheroots.com

Back to the Roots Pearl Oyster Mushroom Kit

Back to the Roots Pearl Oyster Mushroom Kit

Happy Cat Farm: This organic seed producer from Southeastern Pennsylvania offers a Shiitake Mushroom Log for outdoor mushroom growing. The log comes inoculated with a strain of mushroom spawn. Given proper shade and moisture, the log will produce shiitake mushrooms every 8-12 weeks for several years. Just place the log right on the ground in a place like a shaded mulched planting bed and keep it moist. If it dries out for more than a week, soak the log overnight in a container of water and it’ll be as good as new.  www.happycatorganics.com

Happy Cat Shiitake Mushroom Log

Happy Cat Shiitake Mushroom Log

Cool Wave Pansies for Cool Weather Color

April 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

My FedEx delivery person is a friendly woman, so chitchat usually ensues during the scrawling of my signature whenever she drops off a package. Last December when making a delivery, she commented on the beautiful pansies in my porch container. Mind you, it was pansies…in December. Not much blooms in December in New England, yet there these pansies were, looking as fresh as daisies in June. “What did you do to them to make them last so long?” she asked.

Cool Wave Blue

Cool Wave Blue

I did absolutely nothing to them. These were the new Cool Wave Pansies (obtained as free plant samples from the breeding company), and they can definitely stand the “cool” temperatures. At that time, the temperatures had definitely dipped down into the low 20s for several days and these plants were still looking great.

So, that’s the “Cool” part of the name. The “Wave” part of the name is inspired by the “wave” of vigorously blooming flowers on the plant, similar to what inspired the name of the Wave Petunia (from the same company). These Cool Wave pansies not only take cool temps, they spread themselves along the ground or trail from hanging baskets, creating a wave of color in the process.

My Cool Wave pansies finally succumbed to the cold weather—mostly. They hunkered down under at least a foot of snow on several occasions and, quite honestly, became an unsightly mess. However, in the beginning of March when the snow was finally gone, I noticed that some new growth emerging from the base of each plant and one lone flower that was about to bloom. It was a sad bloom that early on in the season, and it was eventually nipped by (yet another) snow storm. But during this first week of April each plant has about a half inch of new growth sprouting from its base. Resurrection time, indeed.

As luck would have it, I received another delivery of pansies to try out during early spring weather. Those are planted up right beside last season’s pansies. Both are still finding their feet as they settle into spring. In less than a month they should all look fabulous and really fill out the container.

Here are some further details:
Water: They like moist but not wet soil
Fertilizer: Every two weeks with an all-purpose liquid fertilizer
Spacing: Plant 12 inches apart, or for a lush-looking container, plant 3 plants in a 10- to 12-in. diameter container, basket or planter.
Height: They become 6-8 inches tall
Width: They trail to 2 feet in length or more!
Exposure: Full sun, at least 6 hours

Homemade Fig Newtons

April 2, 2013 § 2 Comments

My mother is a sucker for cookies of any kind. And I, being her offspring, somehow inherited that trait. She would bake cookies, yes. But wasn’t it more exciting to experiment with the cookie treasures found on store shelves? Oh, what those Keebler Evles did to us. Chocolate-covered anything went directly into our shopping cart. Those chocolate-covered marshmallow puffs on a graham cracker-like cookie were Mom’s favorite. I also had a soft spot for those styrofoam-like wafer cookies with “vanilla creme” sandwiched inside.

But what I really, really liked were fig newtons.

I contend that I never ate that many fig newtons. Not really. Just one box on average a year. Thing is, I would eat an entire sleeve of them at each sitting. Why else would they put them in a sleeve? Ah, logic of childhood. And to have that metabolism again…

A few years ago when I saw that Joanne Chang’s Flour cookbook had a recipe for fig newtons, I was surprisingly conflicted. I love fig newtons—so wouldn’t gourmet fig newtons be the bomb? But … do I want the ability to create something so cravingly delicious? I mean, I’m not a calorie counter but these could be dangerous.

It took me three years to work up the nerve, but I finally made Flour’s fig newtons this weekend. Homemade fig jam in a shortbread cookie. Yes, they are cravingly delicious. Yes, it requires self control to not eat the entire batch. They’re also nothing like the original fig newton. It’s more of a pastry, really…like a slice of fig pie with a shortbread crust. This is dessert worthy of far more than a sleeve. This is a dessert of adult sophistication.

Homemade Fig Newtons (from Joanne Chang’s Flour Cookbook) IMG_3915
Fig Jam Filling
2+ pints ripe black mission figs, stems removed and figs quartered (2 is too little, 3 makes slightly too much)
1 orange, peeled, seeded and finely chopped (try to remove the white pith and membrane, too)
110 grams light brown sugar
1 tbs finely grated lemon zest (about 1 lemon)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Shortbread Dough
1 cup (2 sticks/228 grams) unsalted butter at room temp
75 grams granulated sugar
2 tbs confectioners’ sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract
140 grams all-purpose flour
120 grams cake flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp kosher salt

1. Make the filling: Place quartered figs into a medium-sized, non-reactive saucepan. Add orange, brown sugar, lemon zest and salt. Heat on medium to simmer. Reduce to medium-low and simmer, uncovered for 40 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. The mixture will turn into something reminiscent of jam. Remove from heat and add the vanilla. Let cool completely and set aside for 2 hours. (You can also refrigerate for up to three days in an airtight container.)

2. Start to make the dough: Using a KitchenAid mixer with a paddle attachment, cream together the butter and both sugars on medium speed until mixture is fluffy. This takes about 5 minutes with stoppages now and then to scrape sides of bowls and the paddle. Once that is fluffy, add in egg yolk and vanilla on medium (stopping and scraping) for another 2 or 3 minutes.

3. Separately combine the two flours, baking powder and salt in a small bowl and sift or mix it together well (I added all into a sieve to sift). Add these dry ingredients into the wet ingredients with the mixer on low, and let it combine for another 15 seconds or so. Do the stop-and-scrape thing again.

4. Cut a large piece of plastic wrap and scoop out the dough onto it. Wrap it up well and press the dough into a 6-in. disk about an inch thick. Pop it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. At this point you can store it for up to 5 days or freeze it. If in the fridge for a long while, let it come to room temp for about 30 minutes before working it. If in the freezer, let it thaw out in fridge overnight.

5. Heat oven to 350F. While that is heating up, upwrap the dough disk and place onto a large piece of parchment paper. Add a bunch of flour to the parchment and onto a rolling pin, then gently roll the dough into a rectangle about 9 in. by 16 in. and about a 1/4-in. thick. Be careful not to pull or push the dough as this dough tears easily. Fix any tears by pressing together with your fingertips. I found it useful to trim the edges straight (saving the extra dough for treats later!).

6. With the long edge of the dough facing you, spoon the jam lengthwise across the center of the dough, left to right. The width of this jam “river” should be about 2.5 inches. You might not be able to fit all of the jam onto the dough. That’s okay—it’s tasty on toast. Once the jam river is down, you’ll grab the left and right edges of the parchment above the jam river and fold it down overtop of the jam. The dough should fold halfway down over the jam. Do the same with the bottom half of the dough, folding it up. Take pains to make sure these two dough halves meet in the middle, not overlapping and not having a gap. Side by side is what you are looking for. Once that happens, pinch those two dough halves together to seal, as well as the ends. Now, flip the jam-filled dough log over so the seam is on the bottom. Be careful! You may need to finagle it with adding another piece of parchment and rolling it over. Use your brain to figure it out.

IMG_3907

Use your brain to figure out how to turn this jam-filled log seam-side down without damaging it.

Use your brain to figure out how to turn this jam-filled log seam-side down without damaging it.

6 optional. At this point you can wrap it up and refrigerate or place in the freezer.

7. Pop it in the oven for 60 minutes or until golden brown all over. The recipe says 65-70 minutes, but it really depends on your oven. My edges were getting awfully dark, so I opted to take it out 5 minutes early. Let it cool on a wire rack for at least 2 hours—I know, it’s a crazy long time but you want the jam to firm up a bit. Once cool, cut into 1-in. pieces crosswise. Enjoy with hot tea or coffee. And realize things are so much better than when you were a kid.

 

Plants as Decor

March 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

There is something about plants that freak out people. I think because a plant is a living thing, people are worried about not caring for it. The plant’s death, they think, will haunt them like a ghost.

You know, it’s okay. Plants die. And you know something else? Plants live despite your worry. So go ahead and try to grow some plants, would you?

Try this: Think of plants as living decor. That’s exactly how I am treating my newest set of houseplants. And thanks to a nifty ceramic container sold by Chive.com, I can suspend my succulent garden on the wall, literally creating living art.

chive container

 

Some things to note:

  • Succulents don’t need a lot of water. There are no drainage holes in this suspended container, so having plants that don’t need lots of water is a good thing. I won’t need to water this much at all.
  • Because the container is horizontal, it was important to add some vertical elements to this “art.” One succulent has a long flowering stem and several others cascade over the container’s side.
  • Succulents are fairly small and so are appropriate for such a small container.
  • If the plants die, that’s ok. I can put other small plants in it. Or I could put non-plant things in the container, too. It’s decor, fashion, even. And I can change it up whenever I want.

Head on over to the Chive.com site and find a few plant and flower containers that fit your style. Then have some fun choosing otherworldly-looking succulents to pot up at your local farm market or garden center. It’s artwork as unique as any Rothko.

 

Roasted Eggplant on Toasted Pita

March 26, 2013 § Leave a comment

Ah, an over-stuffed pita sandwich…yum.

Who am I kidding!? When have I ever stuffed a pita and have it NOT break apart on me? Never. Ever. And once it breaks, it’s just all downhill from there. Your fingers get full of hummus. Whatever dressing you’ve put on the sandwich runs down your wrist into your sleeve. It’s no good, stuffing a pita.

Better to use pita like a sandwich bread.

Roasted eggplant and hummus on toasted pita

Roasted eggplant and hummus on toasted pita

That’s exactly what I did for lunch yesterday. Toasted pita cut into two half moons, each spread with Red Pepper Hummus, some roasted eggplant, and some greens lightly dressed with Lemony Vinaigrette. After chowing down, I realized the Fiery Onion Relish may have been a fun thing to have as a topping, too.

Maybe I’ll try that for today’s lunch.

 

 

Caning a Woven Chair Seat

March 21, 2013 § 2 Comments

I’m a crafty individual. I am able to craft words for a living, and I’m thankful for that. But I really do like to work with my hands. Typing on a keyboard just isn’t hands-on enough for me. Gardening and cooking are hands on, and I love those activities. But I really do enjoy working with furniture.

I have refinished a number of old family pieces myself, and have killed off many a brain cell from working with wood strippers and stains in an enclosed, non-ventilated space. My dream would be to have Norm Abrams workshop with all the woodshop gadgets—and an exhaust system. Not that I know how to use everything in Norm’s arsenal, or that I’ve ever made a dresser in my life. But I’d love to have those tools, turn some chair legs, stain some cabinets and make things that are beautiful and useful.

We don’t have room for a workshop, but in our new house we at least have room for me to work on one furniture-related project. I have one chair missing its cane seat, and I know how to weave it. I picked up the skill more than 20 years ago in an adult-ed class one summer. And it’s a good skill to have.

There are two types of woven cane seats:

Chair with pre-woven cane seat

Chair with pre-woven cane seat

1) The type with a groove around the seat’s opening into which you secure a pre-woven mat (see above). Easy peasy.

Seat with holes drilled around the opening's perimeter.

Seat with holes drilled around the opening’s perimeter.

2) The type with holes drilled around the seat’s opening, through which you weave individual lengths of cane (see above).

Luckily, I know how to do both.

We are having a dinner party for six people next Friday, and have six chairs—but only five seats. Time for me to start working on that sixth seat.

Funny thing about this set of chairs—antiques from way before my grandmother’s time—is that five of them have the groove, and just this one has holes drilled through the seat. If you look closely at the above photo you can still see bits of that groove. Who knows why they didn’t just replace the pre-woven mat, but it is what it is.

First step: I work with the vertical strips first. Place one cane strip in each hole, secure with a pin, and thread it through to the opposite side. You can use a really long strip and weave it under and through to the adjacent holes.

IMG_3873

Second step: Repeat, same step so you now have two cane strips in each hole, side by side (see above). What can go wrong? Well, if someone drilled their own darn holes into the seat, sometimes you end up with holes that aren’t quite even. You can see that in the seat above. Don’t worry – it’ll work itself out. You’ll see.

Third step: Now work horizontally. In each hole you’ll insert the end of one strip. Now is where the weaving begins, over and under each of the vertical strips, ending up in the corresponding hole on the other side. To keep things simple, weave each strip the same. That way you’ll easily see if you’ve made an error, if you notice one row looks different from another.

Weaving the first horizontal strip.

Weaving the first horizontal strip.

Fourth step: You guessed it—you’re now going to put a second horizontal strip in each hole, adjacent to the existing strip, and weave in the OPPOSITE manner of the first weave. This is where it starts getting difficult, mainly when it comes to squeezing the cane under another cane that is flush with the wood of the seat.

Weaving the second horizontal strip.

Weaving the second horizontal strip, in an opposite manner from the first.

Fifth step: Haven’t gotten that far yet—but I will very soon. This is where the diagonal strips come in, weaving from upper left to lower right AND THEN upper right to lower left. This is where, fingers crossed, that extra hole on the bottom will kinda sorta disappear.

So, what can go wrong?

  • The cane needs to remain moist while you weave or it will break. It’s already happened to me a dozen times. Either the cane you weave breaks, or a cane that is already in the seat breaks as you pull the working cane. Sucks.
  • You can have a batch of caning that is just ready to split no matter how wet it is. Again, dealing with this RIGHT now.
  • Unless you’ve got yourself a nifty work station where you can suspend the chair at chest level, there’s a lot of bending involved. Watch your lower back.
  • Your cats can feel like they must be involved, chewing on the ends of the cane strips from below, stealing your pins, and hoping up onto the unfinished seat.

Once you get going, it’s not so bad. Nothing that frequent breaks and a good playlist can’t get you through. Stay tuned for Part II and pics of the finished product. If I don’t finish, someone will have to sit on a folding chair. And that just CANNOT happen at a good dinner party.

If you have a chair that needs caning and have NO idea where to begin (and don’t quite get what they are telling you in those YouTube videos), I’d be happy to explain or help. Just let me know.