There’s this running joke in the movie Two Weeks Notice (2002) where Sandra Bullock’s character Lucy, who is a Mylanta-guzzling, workaholic stress-eater, phones in for ridiculously large orders of Chinese takeout (mostly for herself) from her favorite neighborhood restaurant. We don’t exactly know what she’s ordering, aside from a last minute addition of egg rolls, because Lucy is such a regular she’s memorized the menu and just goes by the numbers.
While I don’t usually pull a “Lucy” (ordering enough to feed six), I do have my favorite neighborhood Chinese restaurants on speed dial, and have been known to call in orders on my way home from work on a semi-regular basis. Gotta love that bluetooth technology in my car! Like Lucy, I tend to order my standbys, although they vary from restaurant to restaurant because no one place has everything I want. So, if I’m in the mood for Beef Chow Fun and Singapore Rice Noodles, it’s coming from Just Won Won. If I want Fook Keen Fried Rice, it’s Riverside. However, if I have a hankering for Fried Scallion Pancakes, I’m shit out of luck. After several tries (I kept hoping they were just having an off night), my old go-to place has alas failed to deliver a product worthy of the calories.
Being a woman whose culinary pursuits are directly linked to her appetite, I haven’t let that minor glitch keep me from indulging my cravings. Okay, it’s not exactly instant gratification–they do take a little time and effort to make–but these (relatively) easy Fried Scallion Pancakes with Peanut Sauce are truly satisfying…and worth the calories. All you need is some flour, a couple of scallions, a little toasted sesame, chunky peanut butter, soy sauce, some frying oil and you’re in business! Who needs take-out?!
Fried Scallion Pancakes
(adapted from Dim Sum by Ellen Leong Blonder)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. sea or kosher salt
1/2 cup boiling hot water
2 Tbsp. cold water
2 scallions, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. toasted sesame seed
1 Tbsp. sesame oil
canola or vegetable oil for frying
1/2 cup chunky peanut butter
2 Tbsp. boiling hot water
2 tsp. soy sauce
Whisk together the ingredients until the water and soy sauce are fully incorporated into the peanut butter.
Long before I became a pastry chef, I was fascinated by the mysterious properties of yeast–the way it came to life when mixed with warm water, full of foamy bubbles, how it made something so simple as flour, salt and water grow into a pillowy mass…or how, when misused, can turn into a scary attack blob like the one Katherine Hepburn (Tess) accidentally creates when she tries to make Spencer Tracy (Sam) waffles for breakfast in Woman of the Year (1942). It’s an image that plays in my head as a cautionary tale whenever I work with yeast.
A few weeks ago my friend, Karen, who is my partner in crime in all things related to food–both making and eating that is–decided to try her hand at making bread from a homemade sourdough starter. She christened her starter “Fred” (apparently you’re supposed to give your starter a name) and embarked on a bread-making adventure…one that she decided I needed to go on as well. After she’d baked her first rustic loaf, Karen handed me a container of starter and told me to “feed it” and so began the life of “Barney” my starter…and my latest obsession.
Now I’ve worked with starters before–I spent several weeks helping out a friend at her bakery making levain a few years back–but I had never really made my own at home. Starters are sort of like house plants. You have to remember to feed and take care of it. Unfortunately, I suck at keeping house plants alive, so I was pretty sure I’d probably kill Barney within the first two weeks. I did what Karen instructed me to do–add half water and half flour (I used a 50/50 mix of whole wheat and bread flours) equivalent to the weight of Barney–in other words 200 grams of water, 100 grams of whole wheat flour and 100 grams of bread flour to “feed” 400 grams of Barney.
Once the starter was fed, I left it out at room temperature overnight to ferment and develop more yeasty goodness. I’ve managed to not kill Barney so far (hallelujah!). More importantly, I’ve realized that the best way to keep my starter alive is to keep using it on a regular basis, which is what Karen has been doing with Fred–making everything from rustic loaves to waffles to pizza dough.
Since I only really have time to play with Barney on the weekends, I’ve been limiting myself to a handful of baking projects. One of which is baking the perfect rustic loaf–something I’ve discovered, through my research on YouTube, that requires far more patience than I thought I ever possessed. No, seriously, you have to be willing to commit the time and effort because it’s basically a two-day project–make the dough one day, then let it slowly proof overnight in the refrigerator, then bake it the next day. Sure you can probably do it in one day…if you had a good ten hours to devote to it. But the slower the fermentation, the better the bread. Think of it as the polar opposite of that fluffy white stuff made with a lot of yeast…the stuff that can proof like crazy if you use too much. Contrary to Laura’s fantasies about baking a ginormous “I Love Lucy” loaf of bread, it wouldn’t taste very good…and certainly not worth scraping the burnt dough off the roof, floor and door off the oven!
Adapting the base recipe I found on YouTube, I tinkered with the portions, adding more starter, a bit more salt, and changing the ratio of whole wheat to bread flour. Once I nailed the “plain” loaf, I got fancy and started mixing in fresh rosemary and dried figs, Kalamata olives, and caramelized shallots/garlic and Asiago cheese. Unlike other bread doughs which require quite a bit of kneading to work and stretch the glutens, this dough does not. In fact, because it relies solely on the starter for a more gentle fermentation, you actually handle it less so as not to deflate the lovely bubbles. Consequently, I decided to mix in the additional ingredients before I began the three stages of stretching and folding dough by hand (yes, you read it right, it’s all done by hand).
I would be lying if I said you didn’t need any special equipment to make this bread. Okay, you can probably get away with not having the rattan proofing baskets (although being the obsessive culinary geek that I am, I ordered two from Amazon) or a laver to score the dough (a very sharp knife or razor blade will do), but you do need to have at least a cast iron Dutch oven or a large deep cast iron skillet and something oven-proof that can be fashioned into a dome lid to fit over the skillet (like a large pot). So far for me the Dutch oven has yielded the best results. Oh, and a digital scale would be very useful, as the recipe is in grams and the ingredients must be scaled out. Now if you’ve got the time and patience, the pay off is well worth it–beautifully crusty exterior, chewy flavorful interior that will have you Oprah-shouting “I LOVE BREAD!!” And you won’t be sweating it out in front of the wood-burning oven to bake it…like Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck.
Rustic Country Loaf (aka “Barney Bread”)
Yields 2 loafs
700 grams tepid filtered water
275 grams starter
350 grams whole wheat flour
650 grams bread flour
24 grams sea salt
50 grams tepid filtered water
In a very large mixing bowl whisk together water and starter with a fork. Stir in the flours until a shaggy dough begins to form, then work the dough with your hands until you’ve got a nice soft, pliable mass. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, cover with a kitchen towel and let the dough rest for about 30 mins. Sprinkle the salt and water over the top of the dough and, using a bowl scraper, work the salt and water into the dough until fully incorporated. Scrape down the bowl and cover again, letting the dough rest for another 30 mins. *At this point you can mix in any additional flavorings (e.g. fresh herbs, chopped olives, caramelized shallots, etc.). Every 40 mins. or so, stretch and fold the dough over itself in quadrants, covering it after each turn around the bowl. Do this 3 times. After the last rest, scrape the dough onto a floured surface and divide the dough in half and gently shape into mounds. Cover again and let the dough rest for another 30 mins. Gently stretch and fold each dough into thirds, rotate and repeat to form a loaf. Place each loaf, seam side up into well-floured proofing bowls. Lightly spritz the surface with non-stick spray and wrap the bowls loosely in plastic wrap. Let the doughs rest overnight in the refrigerator. Take the baskets out about 30 mins. before you are ready to bake. *If you only have one dutch oven, just bake them one at a time. Crank up the oven to 500°F and place the dutch ovens inside. When the oven reaches the appropriate temperature, gently unmold the doughs onto large parchment rounds, score the tops with a sharp knife or razor blade, and carefully lower them into the hot dutch ovens and cover with the lids. *I highly recommend using heat-resistant Kevlar gloves. Lower the oven temperature to 425°F and bake with the lids on for 25 mins., then remove the lids and continue baking for another 30-35 mins. The breads should sound hollow when tapped from the bottom. Let the breads cool completely before slicing. Then break out the salted butter and cheese!
So if you’re not keen on investing quite so much time and energy on making the perfect rustic loaf, I’ve got two other “starter” projects that are fairly easy…and certainly worth the effort. My Crispy Chewy Garlic Herb Breadsticks should come with a warning–these are highly addictive! I inhaled five in under 10 mins. and had to force myself to wrap them up and put them away. Unlike the rustic country loaf, you can whip up the dough quickly in a mixer or in a food processor (my preferred method). You do, however, need to plan ahead and make it the day before and let it rest in the refrigerator at least overnight (up to 5 days)…then all you have to do is portion out the dough and roll out the breadsticks.
Crispy Chewy Garlic Herb Breadsticks
Yield: 16-18 breadsticks
425 grams bread flour
1 Tbsp. sea salt
225 grams warm water
40 grams starter
1/4 tsp. dry active yeast
In food processor (fitted with a dough blade), pulse together the flour and salt to combine. Whisk together the water, starter and yeast. Pour the mixture through the feeding tube while pulsing the machine to incorporate into the flour. Continue pulsing at 5 second intervals until you get a smooth, elastic dough. Transfer the dough into a lightly greased zip loc bag and let it rest overnight in the refrigerator.
I let the formed dough rest for about 30 mins., lightly spritzed them with olive oil, sprinkled on a little parmesan cheese, then baked them at 450°F for about 8-10 mins. (longer if you roll fatter breadsticks). While the breadsticks were baking, I heated up some butter and extra virgin olive oil with some crushed garlic and fresh rosemary, then slathered the breadsticks with the mixture hot out of the oven.
The second easy recipe is kind of a retro, comfort twist on the raised classic, Fluffer Nutter Raised Donuts. I initially wanted to make waffles with Barney, but discovered that I’d have to, once again, let the batter rest overnight in the refrigerator. I was jonesing for something sweet, so I looked around for another recipe to play with. I came across one for raised donuts that used both starter and instant yeast. There wasn’t really much to it, so I adjusted the flavorings, adding vanilla extract, a pinch of nutmeg and a little more salt. I realized after the dough balls proofed that I probably should’ve made them a bit smaller–because when I went to fry them, they got huge! Oh well…all the more room to fill with peanut/cookie butter and marshmallow fluff (which I conveniently found in the pantry). Sweet tooth satisfied!
Fluffer Nutter Raised Donuts
Yield: 12 large, 16 small
250 grams bread flour
7 grams instant yeast
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. sea salt
pinch of nutmeg
50 grams butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
100 ml whole milk, lukewarm
40 grams starter
Cookie Butter, Peanut Butter, and Marshmallow Fluff for filling
Place the flour, instant yeast, sugar, salt, and nutmeg in a food processor (fitted with a dough blade) and pulse to combine. Add the butter and pulse at intervals to work it into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Whisk together the remaining ingredients and pulse into the dry mix until dough comes together in a smooth, elastic mass. Sprinkle in a little more flour if the dough is too sticky. Transfer the dough into a lightly greased bowl, cover with a kitchen towel and let it proof until doubled in a warm space. Portion out the dough into 12-16 pieces, then form into balls.
Some girlfriends and I decided to get together Friday before Mother’s Day. At first, we were going to bring appetizers, but then decided that, since we usually enjoy our brunches, we were going to have it for dinner. Initially, I was going to take the easy route and bring turkey bacon because I wasn’t planning to go shopping for anything else, and I really didn’t have time to cook. My memory failed me though and the turkey bacon I thought I had in my freezer was there no more. My husband must have opened the last package and it was half used in the fridge. I knew that wouldn’t be enough. Therefore, I searched for more ingredients that I could get away with as breakfast-y. I had half a container of Brussel sprouts, two potatoes and some tofu. I decided to make bacon and Brussel sprouts, and also breakfast potatoes substituted partly with tofu.
Now I will get a lot of backlash for this from haters out there, but I actually prefer turkey bacon to pig bacon. It’s perhaps partly because I raised two pigs on the farm, or because I don’t like the taste and texture of grease and fatty tissue on my tongue. Or maybe, I can eat more of turkey bacon and not feel like a pork chop. Anyways, if you bake it in the oven at 350°, it gets a pretty crunchy texture and can be chopped up to look like real bacon. While the bacon cooked, I sautéed the Brussel sprouts to make it an even more beautiful green. I added salt, pepper, dried onions and a creole seasoning that claims it is “great on everything” (We’ll just see about that.)
For the breakfast potatoes, I first baked the potatoes for a couple of hours the day before. The next day, I chopped them up into cubes and sautéed it with salt, pepper, and red bell peppers. Then, I set them aside. I pretty much did the same with the tofu, but added paprika to them. Afterwards, I put it all in a baking dish, threw some avocado oil on top, and put it in the oven on low.
When it was time to go, I took it out, threw some foil over it and put it in the car. My daughter was a little overwhelmed by the smell of it in the car on the way to my friend’s house. A few times I heard the crinkling of foil, so I peered in my rearview mirror and found my daughter sniffing the dish. I told her she could have a little bit, and she was elated. She approved by her classic sound of “mmmmmm.”
No, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day and, apparently, more popular here than in Mexico. And ever since some ex-patriot Mexicans living in California decided to turn it into a holiday to celebrate the French getting their asses kicked by the Mexicans in the Battle of Puebla, Cinco de Mayo has become (for better or worse) synonymous with consuming copious quantities of beer, tequila, and Mexican food…all in the name of embracing Mexican culture. So, with that in mind, I’d like to suggest a few movies to watch while you’re raising a glass (or three) in celebration of Cinco de Mayo. While they aren’t all cinematic gems per se, just be glad Gary Marshall hasn’t decided to put his spin on Cinco de Mayo…yet.
Yeah, I know this is quintessential Hollywood popcorn fare with two of the lead characters played by a couple of Welsh. But it does feature Antonio Banderas in all his sexiness as the entertaining, swashbuckling Zorro. Need I say more.
This indie shoot ’em up thriller put director Robert Rodriguez on the map and is the first in a trilogy of films featuring the badass El Mariachi. If you’ve got enough libations, watch Desperado (1995) and Once Upon A Time in Mexico (2003), both featuring the muy caliente Senior Banderas and Salma Hayek.
This gorgeous example of magic realism is one of my all-time favorite food films. Based on the award-winning novel by Laura Esquivel (another one of my favorite books), it’s a beautiful love story that will leave you crying for chocolate.
This engaging coming of age tale about two teenage boys (Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna) embarking on a cross-country road trip with an sexy older woman (Maribel Verdú) takes a smart, funny, insightful, and honest look at sexuality and human desire. Alfonso Cuaròn’s artful, seamless direction elevates the raunchy teen farce to something for more meaningful.
Okay, this last movie is really just for the shits and giggles–our guilty pleasure so to speak. It’s silly and fun…and is in no way an authentic representation of Mexican culture–sort of like the way Taco Bell interprets Mexican food. I mean come on, it stars Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short as The Three Amigos (hey, I did warn you not all my suggestions were cinematic gems). However, if you’re looking for a screwball comedy to go with your beer and nachos, this one’s for you.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include a few recipes in honor of this most festive of “drinking holidays.” I’ve come up with two cocktails, both tequila-based, and a ridiculously easy dessert that you can make in the microwave–just set your DVD player on pause for two minutes!
Key Lime Pie Margarita
4 oz. Tequila Reposado
1 oz. Tripe Sec or Orange Liqueur
3 oz. Lime Syrup*
2 oz. Key Lime Juice
4 oz. Sweetened Condensed “Cookie” Milk**
2 Graham Crackers or Digestive Biscuits, crushed
lime slices and fresh mint for garnish
*To make the lime syrup, combine 1/2 cup water with 1/2 cup sugar and the zest and juice of 2 limes in a small pot and bring to a boil. Strain and cool the syrup before using.
**To make the “cookie” milk, warm up 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk and 3 Tbsp. whole milk in the microwave. Add 2 crushed graham crackers or digestive biscuits and let the crumbs soak in the warmed mixture for about 10 mins, then strain out. Chill until ready to use.
Moisten the rim of two martini glasses with lime, then dip the rims into the crushed cracker crumbs. Pour the tequila, triple sec, lime syrup, lime juice and cookie milk into a cocktail shaker with 3-4 ice cubes and shake to blend. Strain the chilled liquid into the prepared glasses and garnish with lime slice and mint sprig.
Spiced Mexican Chocolate Martini
4 oz. Tequila Reposado
2 oz. Creme de Cacao
1 oz. Triple Sec or Orange Liqueur
2 oz. Chocolate Syrup
2 oz. Guajillo Chili Syrup
2 oz. Half & Half
3-4 dashes Aztec Chocolate Bitters
ground cinnamon and fresh mint for garnish
*To make the guajillo chili syrup, combine 1 cup water, 2/3 cup sugar, 3-4 dried guajillo chili peppers (seeds and stem removed) in a small pot and simmer for about 10 mins. Strain out the peppers and reserve them for later use. Transfer the syrup into a clean glass jar and add a small cinnamon stick. Cool syrup completely before using. Puree the reserved peppers and strain out the skin. Use chili paste to add a sweet spice to any chocolate dessert.
Pour the tequila, creme de cacao, triple sec, chocolate syrup, chili syrup, half & half, and bitters into a cocktail shaker with 3-4 ice cubes and shake to blend. Strain the chilled liquor into two chilled martini glasses, sprinkle with a little cinnamon and garnish with a fresh mint sprig.
Hot Mexican Chocolate Cake in a Mug
Makes One Large Mug or 2 Smaller Mugs
3 Tbsp. All-Purpose Flour
3 Tbsp. Sugar
1 tsp. Brown Sugar
2 Tbsp. Cocoa Powder
pinch of Sea or Kosher Salt
1/4 tsp. Baking Soda
1/4 tsp. Ground Cinnamon
3 Tbsp. Whole Milk
3 Tbsp. Oil
1/2 tsp. Vanilla Extract
1 Tbsp. Sweet Guajillo Chili Paste*
2 Tbsp. Semi Sweet Chocolate Chips
Whisk together the dry ingredients just to combine, then whisk in everything except the chocolate chips. Stir in the chocolate chips at the end. Transfer the mixture into one large microwave-safe mug, lightly greased with non-stick spray (or two smaller mugs). Microwave on high for about 90 seconds. Dust the cake with powdered sugar and top with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.