What’s Making Me Happy – January 6, 2013

Cake Flour – and baking in general

Yes, cake flour. My wife is the resident artist-chef Chez Conner-Smith, and I am the designated baker. I do alright in that role, but I have to admit I have been discouraged by my results over the past year or so. However, I had some good success over the 2012 holidays, making delicious baguettes, a rustic loaf, and chocolate cookies that knocked my wife’s socks off (no small feat that – and no pun intended).

There are a few recipes in particular that I have thus far found vexing, such as biscuits. Before today, I had yet to follow a biscuit recipe that did not result in bricks that were just barely edible. Today I discovered the secret ingredient: Cake flour.

I just needed a little less protein. The following recipe that yielded light and fluffy biscuits that melt in your mouth. Delicious.

1 1/4 C cake flour
3/4 C all-purpose flour
1 T sugar
1 1/2 t baking powder 
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1/4 C butter, chilled
3/4 C buttermilk*
1 pat of melted butter
A little extra flour for the work surface

  1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Mix all dry ingredients in a food processor.
  3. Cut the butter into small pieces or pats and put them in the processor with the dry ingredients. Pulse and mix until you have coarse crumbs.
  4. With the food processor running, pour in the buttermilk in a steady stream. Mix until you have a ball of dough, which should only take about a minute. You don’t want to work the dough too much. The dough should be nice and wet.
  5. Put the dough onto a generously floured work surface. Pat or roll the dough out until it is about 3/4 to 1 inch thick. Cut the biscuits into the desired sizes and shapes, either using a cutter or a knife.
  6. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper. Lay the biscuits on the baking sheet. Brush tops with melted butter. Bake for about 10 minutes, or until tops are golden brown.
  7. Remove from oven, serve, and eat!

*If you don’t have buttermilk, you can make your own by squeezing about a teaspoon into the 3/4 C. milk.

I’m encouraged to try cake flour with popovers, and perhaps other recipes!

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Pie Dough

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour, plus a little extra for dusting dough and work surface
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled, cut into ¼-inch pieces
8 tablespoons all-vegetable shortening, chilled
6-8 tablespoons ice water

Mix flour, salt, and sugar. Using a food processor fitted with a steel blade, or using a pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour. Add shortening, continuing to cut into the flour until the flour is pale yellow and looks like coarse cornmeal.

Sprinkle 6 tablespoons of the water over the mixture. Using a rubber spatula, fold the mix to work in the water. Press down on dough with broad side of spatula until dough sticks together, adding up to 2 tablespoons of water if needed to help the dough come together if needed. Divide into 2 balls, flattening each into a disk about an inch thick. Dust lightly with flour, wrap in plastic, and chill for ½ hour.

3 1/2 cups 1/2-inch-thick slices trimmed rhubarb (1 1/2 pounds untrimmed)
1 16-ounce container strawberries, hulled, halved (about 3 1/2 cups)
1/2 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt

Mix ingredients for filling and set aside.

Pie Assembly

Preheat oven to 400°F.

Roll out 1 dough disk on floured work surface to 13-inch round. Transfer to 9-inch-diameter pie dish. Trim excess dough, leaving 3/4-inch overhang.

Roll out second dough disk on lightly floured surface to 13-inch round. Cut into fourteen 1/2-inch-wide strips. Spoon filling into crust. Arrange 7 dough strips atop filling, spacing evenly. Form lattice by placing remaining dough strips in opposite direction atop filling. Trim ends of dough strips even with overhang of bottom crust. Fold strip ends and overhang under, pressing to seal. Crimp edges decoratively.

Blend 1 large egg yolk with 1 teaspoon water for glaze. Brush the exposed lattice.

Place the pie pan on a baking sheet and place in oven. After 20 minutes at 400°F, reduce temperature to 350°F, and continue baking for 1 hour and 25 minutes.


Whole Grains Evangelism

Gillian’s New Year’s resolution this year was to pick one cook book a month and cook from it almost exclusively. Gillian is quite the chef, and we have a nice little cook book collection, and she wanted to really spend time with some of the books, and that seemed like a good way to do it.

For January she chose Whole Grains, Every Day, Every Way by Lorna Sass. Sass is also a specialist in vegan cooking, but I won’t hold that against her (ha ha). This book is decidedly not vegan, or even vegetarian.

This book has changed my life. I am now a whole grains evangelist. I am spreading the word about this book and about eating whole foods.

The recipes include some things I may have heard of, but never before eaten, like kamut or spelt. We have tried many recipes already, and have loved them all. Each one has been absolutely delicious. So far we have tried and loved kamut, broccoli rabe, and sausage medley; masa harina-beef casserole; faro risoto with butternut squash, ham, sage, and toasted walnuts; and (I think my favorite so far) bulgur pilaf with Moroccan roast chicken. And did I mention the granola? It is the best I’ve ever eaten, and super easy to make.

The bonus is that we feel great, too. There has been a real difference in my energy level each day. Not to mention the positive effects on the digestive system, if you know what I mean (and I think you do).

There are many real health benefits for eating a whole grain diet. Sass points to studies that show that a whole grain diet can lower risk of heart disease and diabetes, can lower cholesterol, reduce risk of stroke and obesity, and can protect against digestive system cancers. A colleague of mine told me that her father has increased whole grains in his diet during the last year, changing nothing else about his diet and exercise regime, and within a year he naturally lost twelve pounds. You can check out some of the scientific literature on the health benefits at the Whole Grains Council website.

And health benefits aside, this stuff is really delicious! The left overs are awesome. You’re having healthy food that doesn’t feel at all overly virtuous to eat. I really like to eat for pleasure. Food is passion. I don’t believe in dieting as discipline on principal. I don’t like processed foods – I like to know where my food comes from and what is in it. I like my food to be food.

Michael Pollan wrote a really great piece for the New York Times Magazine on January 28, Unhappy Meals where he talks about how the majority of Americans consume highly processed food products. Have you walked into a Safeway or Albertsen’s or any grocery store chain recently? Everything is prepackaged and processed. What is in that stuff anyway? I can’t pronounce half of the ingredients list on some things. It is so hard to find unprocessed food these days. We are fortunate in the Bay Area to have several grocery stores that stock things like spelt and kamut, but if we lived in Kentucky we might have to mail-order these things.

Gillian and I have always eaten very well, and we are relatively heath conscious, but not obsessive about it. Mostly, we eat for pleasure. My friends think I’m a little crazy, but I feel that I’ve had a conversion experience. I am a believer.

We are enjoying cooking from this book so much that we’ve decided to continue focusing on it, cultivating a “grain bank” as Sass recommends, menu planning primarily using Whole Grains. Gillian may move on to other books eventually, but we have decided that whole grain recipes are going to stay a staple of our diet.

Alright, I’ll climb down from my pulpit, but I’ll leave you with one of our favorite recipes from the book (with slight modifications).

Stupendous Granola

2/3 cup grade B maple syrup
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup toasted wheat germ
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1 1/2 cups unsalted nuts (your choice), coarsely chopped
1 cup dried fruit

Place a rack in the middle of the oven; preheat to 225.

In a small saucepan, blend the syrup and oil. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until warm (3-5 min). Stir in the vanilla extract. Cover and set aside.

In a large bowl, toss the oats, wheat germ, coconut, and nuts together. Stir in the syrup mixture until the oats are evenly coated.

Spread the granola mixture evenly onto a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake until the oats are golden brown, about 1 1/2 hours. Stir the mixture every 20 minutes, and rotate the baking sheet so that the mixture will be evenly toasted.

Transfer to a large storage container. When cool, stir in the fruit.* Cover and store at room temperature for up to 2 weeks or refrigerate for up to 2 months.

* We used dates, throwing them in the mix to toast with everything else. They were delicious after a toasting.

Variations: Use rolled barley, spelt, or rye in place of some of the rolled oats. Also, try adding 1/8 cup of sesame seed and/or flax seeds.

Today I am thankful for…

Mashed potatoes
Butternut squash with ginger, lemon, butter, and honey
Brussels sprouts with bacon and thyme
Home-made cranberry sauce
Oyster cornbread stuffing
Shitake mushroom gravy
Maple pecan pie
Amazing smells eminating from the kitchen
Gillian’s cooking tallent
Elastic waistbands
My beautiful wife to share this day and this meal with