Sunday, December 27, 2009

Baking bread. focaccia.

I'm not sure when it started, a year ago, perhaps, but I began baking bread like someone possessed after reading about the phenomenon of no-knead bread. You mixed together flour, water, salt, and a tiny bit of yeast, left it to rise slowly, overnight, then baked it in a preheated cast-iron pot (or any covered casserole - Pyrex worked exceptionally well). It looked more or less like one of those crusty artisanal loaves that came in brown paper bags and tasted like heaven, especially when eaten warm, spread with sweet butter, perhaps a little jam. I tried variations, adding whole-wheat flour, which gave the bread a somewhat loofah-like texture, and walnuts, which stained my irregularly rounded loaf with purple streaks. Eventually, I got bored, and returned to buying my bread at the market.

A longing for fresh bread brought me back to the table, so to speak, and with it a couple of new books on bread baking. A chance mention of a quest for the focaccia on Twitter the other day gave me a new mission. It took no time at all to measure out ingredients, dump them all in the stand mixer, then walk away. From the next room I could hear a steady thwack-thwack-thwack; when the dough began to come together smoothly the sound became a rhythmic thunk-thunk-thunk. I tried kneading it with hands slick with olive oil; the dough still stuck wherever I touched it. I washed my hands, leaving them dripping with water, and tried again; this time the dough behaved as I lifted and folded it over again. Eventually I had a large ball of smooth, almost silky, soft dough. It was springy and cool beneath my fingers, and I put it away in the fridge with some regret. Morning would come soon enough.

In the morning I divided the dough into thirds, or rather, I took off a third of the dough and spread it in a Pyrex pie plate. The recipe suggests that you could use about 8 oz of dough in an 8-inch pan or 12 oz of dough in a 9-inch pan; what I had was a 9.5-inch pie plate. Good enough. I stretched the dough out with my fingertips, and left it to rise while I went out for a movie. By the time I got back, three hours later, the dough had become puffier, filling the pan, smoothing out the dimples my fingertips had left in the soft, white dough. I added more olive oil, sprinkled on sea salts flavored with Ni├žoise olives and rosemary and lavender. Slid it all into the screaming-hot (500˚) oven, resisted the urge to cross myself and pray.

As so often happens (my oven runs a little hot), the bread was done before the timer buzzed. Oh well. It was a bit too salty; I had been overly generous with the seasoning salt. Oh well. Here was good, fresh, hot bread - soft and fluffy, with an airy, light crumb, just enough chew to the crust, slicked with olive oil and fragrant with the herb salts. I ate one wedge, then another, then another; before I knew it, the entire loaf was gone. (In my defense, I hadn't eaten breakfast yet, nor lunch). I sat with my empty plate next to me, and reflected that homemade bread is always better than anything you can find in the store, or at least as good as anything you can buy, by virtue of its freshness, its warmth, the knowledge that you made it yourself.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Pork and cabbage.

I was thinking aloud in the car, driving home from a party the other night, wondering what to do with extra ingredients rattling around in the fridge. I should have known that M. would know what to do with a pound of ground pork and a head of Napa cabbage. I had been thinking meatballs, ants-on-a-log, or noodles stir-fried with the pork and cabbage and perhaps some scallions, the day before when I wandered through the aisles of the supermarket. M. had another idea, a layered concoction of cabbage and sausage, baked in a covered dish, something from the Irish food writer Tamasin Day-Lewis. He sent me a link to the recipe, found on another blog. Called "Stuffed Cabbage in the Troo Style," it seemed promising, and I filed it away in my mind.

A few days passed. I ate leftovers as the Napa cabbage reproached me from the refrigerator shelves, like the skull of Hamlet's father. The pound of ground pork gleamed beneath tightly-stretched plastic wrap. I went back to the recipe, noted that there were two versions: the original, and the modified version. The recipe called for sausage; I had none, only plain ground pork. Modified, it called for fresh herbs; it was cold and gray out and I was too lazy to go to the tiny herb garden in my building's courtyard. (Efforts to grow herbs on my windowsill have all failed). I would turn to my Chinese upbringing, using the seasonings of my childhood and treating the dish like a giant dumpling filling.

The ground pork (Kurobota, from Uwajimaya) went into a bowl with a bunch of scallions (chopped finely), a couple glugs of soy sauce, grated ginger, some rice wine, freshly ground black pepper, 5-spice powder, and a dash of sesame oil. The cabbage was sliced up and tossed with Kosher salt, then left to drain in a colander, to draw out some of the moisture before cooking. (The original recipe calls for blanching the cabbage first, but it seemed unnecessary to me, and the blog writer agreed). I layered it in a small 1 3/4 quart Le Creuset pot, pressing firmly down on the layers of cabbage and seasoned pork (actually, it was kind of fun) to fit it all in. The tight-fitting, heavy lid made baking (parchment, I assume) paper superfluous, and the rich Kurobota pork eliminated the need for any extra butter.

After an hour in the oven, I could smell the seasoned pork and cabbage cooking slowly away. The shredded cabbage had melted into the pork, the entire thing shrinking slightly away from the edges of the pot. It looked like a huge meatball oozing with its own juices. I sliced off a big wedge and eased it onto a bed of rice, adding some of the sauce; it was soft and lush, comforting, savory, like a plate of dumpling filling without any dough wrappers getting in the way. I finished my serving, then another; wished I had someone to share it with. I'll make it again.