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Rituals are important, especially about food. Doing the same thing over and over again is how you learn to get better.

Case in point: making bread. I didn’t know how to make bread when I first showed up for a Shabbat dinner at my friends’ house, which showed in my blobby and pale no-knead loaf. But I practiced from then on, every Friday. Loaf after loaf after loaf. I bought more flours, bulk yeast, cookbooks, and a baking stone. I’ve done pitas andpain de campagne and whole-wheat flax and red wine and cheese. A lot sucked. A lot were good.

I’m not Jewish, and even though one of my hostesses is, the religiosity of the event is more symbolic than anything (we do sing the prayer, when we remember). The three girls cook a variety of meals—elaborate to simple, but always delicious—we drink (too much) wine, and I bring bread. It’s simple, but in its own oddball way, it’s kind of sacred too—like any ritual worth doing.

Enough schmaltz. The bread! Challah is a sweet, eggy loaf traditionally served on Fridays, dipped in a little salt. It’s soft and delicious and makes wonderful French toast the day after. I’ve made various permutations of it (no-knead, whole-grain, raisin-studded and turban-shaped) but I think this is my favorite recipe so far. I used honey instead of the sugar in the recipe, because…I was out of sugar. But I like the taste of honey better anyway, so there. The secret to the dark crust is two egg washes: one before the final rest, and one right before baking.

My braiding skills leave much to be desired, but like I said…practice, practice, practice.

Challah Bread
adapted from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice
makes two loaves

  • 18 oz (4 cups) bread flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/3 tsp. instant yeast
  • 3/4 c. room temperature water
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 tbsp. honey
  • 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 2 egg whites, whisked until frothy, for egg wash
  • Sesame or poppy seeds (or both!) for sprinkling 

Whisk together flour, salt, and yeast. In a separate bowl, mix together water, eggs, yolks, honey, and oil. Stir wet ingredients into dry until they form a ball, adding a little extra water if needed.

Turn the ball onto a clean counter and knead for 10 minutes, until dough is springy (alternatively, knead in a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment for 6 minutes on medium-low speed). Lightly oil a large bowl. Shape the dough into a ball, turn it on all sides to get it coated with oil, and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Let ferment on the counter for 1 hour.

After one hour, remove the dough and knead it lightly for 2 minutes to degas. Shape into a ball, return to the bowl, cover, and let rise for another hour, or until doubled in size.

Remove dough from bowl and, using a dough scraper, divide into six equal portions (a scale is handy for this). Shape each into a ball, and let rest on the counter, covered by a clean dishtowel, for 10 minutes.

Roll each ball into a long strand. Braid three strands into a loaf, starting in the middle and pinching the ends closed. Repeat with remaining strands. Transfer loaves to a parchment (or silpat) lined baking sheet and brush with egg wash. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for an hour (or slightly longer) until about 1 1/2 times original size.

Preheat oven to 350º. Brush loaves with egg wash again, and sprinkle with seeds, if using. Bake for 20 minutes on middle rack, then rotate sheet for even baking. Bake for another 20 to 30 minutes, or until richly golden brown. Remove from sheets to cool on rack for at least an hour before slicing and eating.

Shabbat shaloam!

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There are two things in your kitchen you’re probably not using enough: your broiler (we’ll get back to this one) and your freezer. If all you’re doing is keeping vegetables and pizzas and ice cubes in there, you’re missing out. For one thing, you can freeze tons of little odds and ends to reuse later (ex: tomato paste and chilis en adobo, because who ever uses a whole can?) in plastic bags. You can make double batches of things (applesauce, bolognese) and have fallback plans for weeknight dinners.

I’ll stop before I get too weird and hints-from-Heloise-y and cut to the chase: not only can you make your freezer into a frozen treasure trove of bakeable-to-order desserts, but you absolutely should.

Flash-freezing is a dead simple technique. Put unbaked things on baking sheet, freeze until firm. Pop into plastic bag, squeeze out most of the air, and save for when the need strikes. Baked goods I have successfully frozen thus far include scones, biscuits, hand pies (recipe forthcoming), and, of course, cookies. When the time comes to bake them, just follow the recipe, possibly adding a little baking time to account for dechilling.

These particular cookies were from a huuuuuge double batch I made for a choir snack a few weeks ago. After baking four full sheets, I decided the rest were destined for cryogenics and froze them. Since then, homemade cookies have never been more than 10 minutes away, especially when I use my ultimate cheater’s method: baking in the toaster oven.

One last word of advice: underbake these guys. They’re really the best when they don’t get too hard.

Molasses Spice Cookies
adapted from The Best Recipe
makes ~20 cookies

  • 2 1/4 c. AP flour
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 3/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 c. dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 c. unsulphured molasses 

Preheat oven to 375º. Whisk together flour, salt, and spices. In an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugars until fluffy, around 3 minutes or so. Scrape down bowl with a rubber spatula and beat in egg, vanilla, and molasses. Scrape bowl again.

Add dry ingredients and beat (carefully!) on low speed until just combined. Form dough into 1 1/2 inch balls and place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets.

Bake for 11 minutes, rotating sheets halfway through baking time, and cool on sheets for 2 minutes before removing to racks. To freeze, place cookie sheet in freezer until dough has hardened, then remove dough balls to plastic bag. Bake as before, right from the freezer, possibly adding a minute or two to baking time if needed.

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Happy Halloweekend!

Confession: although I count Halloween as my probably-favorite holiday, my feelings about the associated food are decidedly “meh.” I’m not a huge candy freak. Sugary stuff makes me jittery, and lots of chocolates “might contain” peanuts. And while I like a good cupcake or cake truffle as much as the next girl, I found myself wanting to do a savory Halloween.

Weird? Perhaps, but also tasty.

Traditional (if there is such a thing when it comes to Halloween) “witches’ fingers” are some kind of shortbread cookie (or, if you’re Martha Stewart, a fearsome yeasted-then-boiled dough to rival bagel-making in its complexity) with the crowning trompe-l’oeil of a blanched almond fingernail.

Sigh. The fingernails are key! And what other foods are fingernail-shaped, even?

I happened to have made pumpkin soup from a real pumpkin the other day (it’s almost as easy as opening a can, I swear!) and roasted the seeds, as you do, and, well, bingo. 

The recipe I’ve cobbled together is kind of a spicy cheese straw/cracker with, ah, curry-roasted pumpkin seeds (I would have flavored them differently, had I thought ahead). Having sampled a few as they came out of the oven, I can say that for once, my baking improvisation was a success.

Novelty food or not, they’re good. And if all goes according to plan, I’ll have another neato spooky recipe to post soon…

Cheesy, Spicy, Nut-Free Witches’ Fingers
makes about two baking sheets’ worth

  • 1 1/2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 4 tbsp. butter, cubed and slightly cold
  • 3/4 cup AP flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes or cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted butter, unless you’re a salt fiend)
  • 1 tbsp. milk or half and half
  • Roasted pumpkin seeds 

Preheat oven to 350º.

Pulse cheese, butter, flour, pepper, and salt in a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add milk and process until mixture forms a cohesive-ish ball. (Alternatively: cut in butter and cheese with pastry blender, knives, or fingers until mixture forms large crumbs, stir in milk with wooden spoon).

Dust countertop with flour and roll out half the dough to 1/8 inch thickness. Using a pizza cutter or sharp knive, cut into finger-sized strips. Transfer to parchment or silpat-lined baking sheet. Press seeds into one end of strips (mush the sides up over the seed, as it will puff right off otherwise) and taper into finger-shape. Using a sharp knife, cut three “knuckle” lines in the middle of each finger.

Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until just golden at the edges. Cool on sheet on a rack.

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I really wanted to make something with apples, because in my mind it’s the middle of fall already. Did the fact that it was 75 and humid today stop me? OF COURSE NOT.

I was already making chili, which involves beer (if you’re doing it right) so with the leftover half-bottle I elected to make beer bread…muffins. With apples. Oh, and cheddar cheese. Because why do anything halfway?

I am not going to lie to you: these did not turn out the way I expected. As a poor craftsman, I’m going to blame not my tools but my materials, and also assure you that if you do things the right way everything will turn out buttery and delicious. So fear not.

First, don’t use a Tripel as your beer of choice. It’s just too bitter, especially with the whole wheat flour. Second, don’t just pick a random aged cheddar at the gourmet grocer because you think it will be good. Actively seek out a sharp one, age be damned. Third, make sure you’re not running low on butter, because this recipes needs you not to skimp.

And use some nice apples. But those are easy to find these days.

The final product needed sharper cheese and more butter, but they were certainly edible, and I highly recommend you make some. Beer bread is an awesomely simple thing and will literally find its way into any mealtime (just try not to eat it when you roll out of bed).

Apple-Cheddar Beer Bread Muffins
makes one dozen

  • 1 1/2 cups AP flour
  • 1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour (or use all AP)
  • 1 tbsp. baking powder
  • 1 (12 oz) bottle beer, preferably a Lager
  • 3 tbsp. butter, melted and cooled, plus additional for topping
  • 1 medium to large apple, cored and diced
  • 3/4 cup sharp cheddar, shredded

Preheat oven to 375º and place rack in middle. Grease a muffin tin (or, alternatively, use a loaf pan).

Whisk together flours and baking powder, then mix in beer and butter until just combined and no dry streaks remain. Fold in apple pieces and cheese.

Portion batter into muffin tin (no liners needed!) or loaf pan and top with additional melted butter (about 1 tablespoon more). Bake for 25 minutes (for muffins) or 50-60 minutes (for loaf) until golden brown & a tester comes out clean.

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Everyone probably has a favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe. My mother, who is a wonderful person who hates to cook, is nevertheless very good at baking them. In our house, the Toll House Recipe is sacrosanct, and you are just going to have to agree.

Nestlé semi-sweet? Non-negotiable. Crisco? Always. The upgrade to silpat baking sheets instead of naked metal was a tricky transition to make, with much wringing of hands, but it turns out that it prevents them both from sticking too much and from getting too crispy on the bottom. She will make endless batches of them as hostess presents when we visit friends at their lake house, and every meal—including breakfast—will be accompanied by one or two “drive-by” cookies on the way through the kitchen.

Traditionally, they are made with walnuts, but—ahem—I leave those out in the interest of staying alive. If you want to go half-and-half, my advice is to make the nut-free batch first, like we do, and decorate the nutless cookies with colored sugar to make it very obvious which ones are safe for the allergic.

Toll House Cookies

  • 2 1/4 c. AP flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 c. Crisco shortening
  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 3/4 c. brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 c. semisweet chocolate morsels

Preheat oven to 375º. Combine flour, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, beat together shortening, sugars, and vanilla until creamy. Add eggs one at a time to butter mixture and beat well. Add flour mixture gradually, then stir in chips.

Bake on Silpat sheets on cookie sheets (if you have them) or ungreased cookie sheets if you don’t for 9-12 minutes. It will take a few batches. Pro-tip: cool your sheets in the fridge in between batches to prevent the later cookies from spreading too much.

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Many apologies for sparse updates. Working and reading (which are the same thing, these days) and just generally being in New York City have left me with little time or energy to cook. Or at least, to cook interesting things.

But! It’s the Fourth of July, tra la, and I’m home for a bit. So instead of making something mundane and expected for breakfast, I made…oatmeal. Which, okay, is kind of mundane and very expected of me. But this is baked oatmeal, which means it’s delicious enough to be almost like a coffee cake, but healthy enough that you can eat a quarter of the pan.

The recipe included melted butter, which means that I used browned butter. If you’ve never browned butter before, it basically just means cooking it in a saucepan until it gets all toasty and chestnut-colored and gets this wonderful caramelized flavor to it. You will not regret the extra time it takes. Besides, your oven takes a while to preheat. I know.

Blueberries are great because, well, they taste awesome when baked, but you could use any fruit you feel like, really. Bananas would be tasty, as would raspberries or (if you’re not me) some toasted walnuts or almonds. Go crazy! It’s breakfast!

Brown Butter Blueberry Baked Oatmeal
adapted from Joy the Baker
serves 4
 

  • 1 1/2 cups rolled oats (not instant or quick-cooking)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • Dash nutmeg
  • Dash salt
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • Splash vanilla extract
  • Roughly 1/2 cup of blueberries, or to taste

Preheat your oven to 350º and butter your choice of 8x8, 9x9, or pie tin. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and cook it, watching carefully to prevent burning, until it is a mahogany color and smells nutty. Remove from heat and let cool.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine oats, sugar, spices, salt, and baking powder. In a separate bowl, whisk together egg, milk, butter, and vanilla. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and fold in using a rubber spatula. Mix in blueberries gently and pour into prepared pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until oatmeal no longer jiggles and smells wonderful. Serve with more berries, milk, and/or yogurt.

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I’m home! For two days! Which means scrambling around to do things like doctor’s appointments and getting my hair cut and all of my laundry before I schlep up to New York for A Really Exciting Internship.

None of this precludes making cake, of course. My sister’s birthday was over a month ago, but even the flimsiest of reasons warrants cake, and so we are having a fakey birthday party / send-off for me / cakefest.

She, of course, requested chocolate. I, of course, wanted to make something lighter and…summerier. But this is a girl who doesn’t like lemon flavors in cake (I know. We can’t actually be related). A compromise was struck: a simple chocolate cake with homemade ice cream and raspberries. Kudos, once again, to Smitten Kitchen, for having just the kind of recipe I wanted.

I didn’t have Dutch cocoa, only the fair-trade unprocessed kind, (we’re hippies, la la la) but the recipe turned out nicely anyway. Plus, the oven only has to go to 325, and on 90-degree days of Philadelphia humidity, that is quite a plus.

Simple Chocolate Cake
adapted from Smitten Kitchen
serves 8-10

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 325º and butter and flour a loaf pan. Cream butter with an electric mixer on medium until fluffy, then add sugars and beat together well. Add egg, mix until combined, then add buttermilk and vanilla. Scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally as needed.

Sift together the dry ingredients and stir them in with a spoon until blended but not overmixed (my batter was still a bit lumpy). Pour into loaf pan and bake 60-70 minutes, or until tester comes out clean. Cool, in pan, on a rack for 10 minutes, then transfer to a plate.

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Let me describe to you my morning yesterday: I sat on my sunroom couch, surrounded by the oh-God-finally-Spring sunshine, and ate a scone with my coffee and yogurt. Way more Martha Stewart than I actually am. My hair was dripping wet, my coffee was way too watery, and I was already sticky from the humidity.

But the scone! My roommates’ cupcake-making frenzy of last Friday had left us with practically a cow’s worth of heavy cream, and the only thing I could think of was breakfast pastries. Since a load of sugar first thing in the morning will put me right back to sleep (even with coffee) I decided to go the savory route. Which means cheese.

Cheese scones are great. If you’ve never had one, you’re missing out. A sharp cheddar combined with some chopped scallions is a flavor pairing that’s well-suited to a muffin or a biscuit, so I figured a scone would be the next logical step. I used whole-wheat flour because, well, I am a hippie, and I used flaxseed and water instead of an egg (but only because I was saving an egg for a future lunch, and they came out a bit crumbly as a result. You, I think, should opt for the egg).

The best part is the convenience factor. Put them on a baking sheet, freeze them until they’re hard, and zip ‘em up in a baggie for frozen storage. Every morning, I can now get up, preheat the toaster oven, and have a warm and melty scone 25 minutes later, without making my kitchen swelter. Eat your heart out, Martha.

Cheese and Scallion Scones
makes 6 big or 8 medium scones
adapted from Smitten Kitchen 

  • 2 cups whole wheat or AP flour
  • 1 tbsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 stick butter, cubed and cold
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 lb. sharp cheddar, cubed or grated
  • 1 bunch scallions, rinsed and chopped

Preheat oven to 400º (unless freezing for later). Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt. Using your fingers or a pastry blender, work the butter into the flour until it resembles a very coarse meal and the butter chunks are about the size of a pea. 

In a separate bowl, whip the eggs together and add the cream. Fold into the dry mixture until almost incorporated, then add the cheese and scallions. Mix until everything comes together and no dry streaks remain (you may need to add a splash more cream if working with whole wheat flour; it’s dryer by nature).

Dump the dough onto a floured counter and pat it into a circle. Cut into 6 or 8 wedges, and bake on parchment-lined baking sheet for 25 minutes or until just lightly browned. If you’re flash-freezing, arrange scones on an unlined, ungreased sheet, and freeze until solid and no longer sticky, about an hour. Store in a ziplock bag in the freezer. Let come to room temperature before baking, then bake as above.

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I haven’t bought a loaf of bread since I got back from Paris. How incredibly snotty does that sound? Well, whatever. I apologize for nothing!

Home baking is actually super easy if you do it the trendy new no-knead way. You basically mix up a particularly wet batch of dough, let it rise, stick it in the oven, and voilà. Bread. You can make extra dough and keep it in the fridge, or you can bake extra loaves and freeze them. The best part? It’s dirt-cheap. Invest in a five-pound sack of flour and a pack of instant yeast and we’re talking pennies a loaf. Well, maybe quarters. But still!

I was lucky enough to find Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day at my school library (I know, right?) and then its sequel, Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day at Borders for 75% off. The method is simple and flexible and I have messed it up more than enough times to say with confidence that anyone can do it. I’ve had to make adaptations: I don’t have a “resealable food-safe plastic container,” so I use a mixing bowl and plastic wrap. I didn’t have a pizza stone (for a while), so I used an upturned cast-iron skillet.

This version is mostly whole-wheat, which means you get added hippie points as a bonus. I made it loaf-pan-style for ease of sandwiching, but you can also bake them as free-form blobs on a pizza stone or skillet if you don’t. Seeds make a tasty garnish, but you can skip them if you dislike awesome bread. I used half of this batch to make garlic knots, which were tasty but unphotogenic, and refrigerated half for this guy.

No-Knead Whole Wheat Sandwich Loaf
from Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day 
makes two two-pound loaves

  •  5 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 2 cups AP flour
  • 1.5 tbsp. instant yeast
  • 4 tbsp. vital wheat gluten
  • 1 tbsp. kosher or sea salt
  • 4 cups lukewarm water (around 100º F)
  • Optional seeds (sesame, poppy, caraway) for crust

Whisk together the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Add the water and mix without kneading until no dry spots remain. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, leaving a slight gap at one side. Let rise on the counter until the top is bubbly and collapses a bit, at least two hours.

Lightly grease a loaf pan. Take about half of the dough, dust it with flour, and, using slightly wet hands, shape it into a ball by pulling all the sides around to the bottom (the bottom will look all pinched together, but the top should be smooth). Elongate the ball into an oval the length of your pan, and set it in the pan (it should be about 2/3 full). Let rest for 1 hour and 45 minutes, loosely covered with plastic wrap.

Preheat the oven to 450º with a rack in the middle. On another empty rack, place an empty METAL broiler tray (glass will shatter; don’t use glass!) When oven is at temperature, use a pastry brush to paint the surface of the loaf and add seeds, if you want. Using a serrated bread knife, make several slashes in the top crust to allow steam to escape. Place the loaf pan on the middle rack and pour 1 cup of hot tap water into the broiler tray to create steam in the oven. Shut the door quickly and bake for 40-45 minutes, until crust is deep brown and firm.

Remove from pan and let cool completely on a rack before slicing (this prevents the loaf from drying). Homemade bread will go moldy or stale faster than store-bought, so freeze whatever you won’t be using in a few days in a layer of plastic wrap and in a ziploc bag.

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Conventional wisdom says you should never alter a baking recipe the first time you make it, and definitely if you don’t really know what you’re doing. But conventional wisdom also says things like “don’t grocery shop when hungry” and “don’t ask for a stand mixer for your birthday because they’re expensive and you’re only 21”. Clearly, I’m a flouter.

To paraphrase another maxim, necessity begets creativity, and when I needed cookies and wanted not to go buy white flour or white sugar (only partially out of philosophy, mostly out of laziness and the fact that it was 8:30 PM), I had to wing it a bit. The resulting cookies are really more like biscuits (hence my name for them) and they’re not so sweet—in fact, they’re barely sweet at all, and just a tiny bit spiced.

I debated whether or not the recipe was even worthy of writing up. But here it is, because 1. I’m proud they weren’t utter failures and 2. they make very good tea biscuits (and I won’t tell anyone if you spread some honey on them). They’re crumbly when baked and reminiscent of slice ‘n’ bake cookies from a tube (remember those?) when raw, so eating them either way is acceptable (salmonella is low on my list of food fears, for some reason).

Molasses-Spice Tea Biscuits
heavily adapted from Joy the Baker
makes around 24 biscuits, your mileage may vary 

  • 1 ¼ c. whole wheat flour (all-purpose is fine too)
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp baking soda
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ea. nutmeg, cloves, ground black pepper
  • 1 stick butter, softened
  • ⅓ c. brown sugar
  • ¼ c. molasses
  • 1 egg

Sift together the first six ingredients in a mixing bowl. In the bowl of a standing mixer, cream butter & sugar together. Add egg and beat on medium until fluffy and light, about 2 minutes. Add molasses and combine on low speed. Add all dry ingredients together on low speed, increasing to medium when danger of flour-splosion is negated, until combined. Transfer dough to wax or parchment paper and roll into an approximate log shape about 1 1/2 inches across. Chill log in fridge 1-2 hours. Preheat oven to 350º. Cut into 1/4 inch slices, sample a few uncooked chunks, then bake for 10 minutes on parchment paper’d baking sheet. Let cool slightly before removing from sheet.