Saturday, April 28, 2007

Rising to the Occasion

Without ever seriously intending it, I seem to have become a heavy user of yeast. Lo! these many years ago, a triple pack of the stuff would last for a long time -- sometimes longer than the Use By date on the packets. Then, as I got more enthusiastic about yeast breads, I graduated to the small jar of dry yeast, the one kept tucked on a refrigerator shelf and hauled out every time a spoonful or two was required for the latest batch of dough.

Fairly recently I emptied one such jar and, since Lee didn't have anything but the triple-packets at the Market, that's what I got to tide me over. I'd forgotten how spendy that form of yeast packaging could be. Don't know what it is in your neck of the woods but this one cost me $2.99. Round off that penny and we're talking a buck for each single packet. One Yankee dollah for 2 1/4 teaspoons of yeast. That's a mere quarter ounce of the stuff. Ye gods and little guppies, at that price, I might as well buy store-bought bread.

I asked Lee if he could get in the jars of yeast because that was more economical. "Let me check with Costco," he said. "I'll bet I can get you a good deal on a bulk package." (I'm not sure how it works but Lee has set up a sort of Costco Club for local customers and they can order bulk low-priced goods on a weekly basis. I'm not a member of the Club so he was doing me a big favor.)

I didn't hear any more from Lee so I called the other day to see if the yeast had come in. He wasn't there but one of the gals ran back to the office to see. Not knowing exactly what it was she was looking for, she thought there was no yeast package there.

Okay. No problem. I went online and did some serious shopping around. Hooboy! I managed to find -- and order -- a one-pound package of Red Star dry yeast for a mere $4.95. Then I called the Market and told them to have Lee cancel the yeast order.

A little later the phone rang and it was Lee, sighing mournfully. "I'm sorry, Dee. The package of yeast has been there for a week. The girls just didn't realize it. What kind of price did you get for what you found?" When I smugly told him it was just under $5 for a pound, he sighed again. His yeast was only $4.73 -- and it was TWO pounds!

Awwk! Where the single-portion packets were a dollar apiece, the same amount in bulk was now less than 4 pennies per portion! Which means, I guess, that my own now-not-so-hot deal was still only about 8 or 9 cents a portion. Vast difference.

It was too late to cancel my online order. Lee was perfectly willing to send the yeast he got back to Costco but I figured that wasn't really fair to him. When he works special favors for me, I don't mess with him, you know? So I picked up the 2-pound package yesterday and the 1-pound package will probably arrive at the post office Monday or Tuesday.

What am I going to do with this wealth of yeast? Well, obviously, it would be a good idea to share as much as possible with family and friends. That'll help. Also, after doing a little research, I discovered yeast keeps quite a long while if one stores it in an air-tight container in the freezer. I can do that. No problem.

Now all I have to do is surround my bread machine with mighty mojo so it won't break down before I run out of the yeastie beasties. Life is a balancing act but I'll try to rise to the occasion.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Rainy Day Stuff

It's probably hard to tell in a photo this size but the shot was taken through a rain-splattered window and the branches of the trees are tossing in the wind as though they think they're at the disco. All those gorgeous blossoms just came on this last week and now, thanks to this silly April stormlet that came pouncing in this morning, it's beginning to look like pink snow down there. Dayum.

I'm happy to report this particular storm is not irrigating the innards of my humble dwelling, thanks to the heroic efforts of my landlord earlier this month. Billy spent several days slaving on the roof with assorted tools and supplies and, by golly, I think he managed to seal almost all the leaks. What a blessed relief!

There's been such a lot going on this month that I just haven't been keeping up with y'all. I will try to get all caught up now but I'll spread it out over the rest of the month, okay? Can't use up all the "stuff" in one swell foop. What fun is there in that?

One thing about which I need to alert you: the yeast content of the pan de agua recipe in the April 1st post. I said 3 Tablespoons yeast. The original recipe actually called for 2 1/2 packages of yeast. Okay, a package is 2 1/4 teaspoons and, since 3 teaspoons equals a tablespoon, I always just round it off and think of 1 tablespoon as being the same as a package. For all practical purposes, that works fine.

Where I messed up was in converting the "2 1/2 packs" to tablespoons. It really should only have read 2 tablespoons (rounded off on the generous side) but I was thinking of the 3 teaspoons and the proverbial doo-doo eventuated. Fortunately, that over-abundant measurement did not hurt the bread. On the other hand, that much yeast can put a hurt on your pocket book. I got to looking at that measurement and thought, whoa! Why so much?

Well, I did some experimenting. A loaf using 2 tablespoons came out, as far as I could see, identical to the previous loaves using 3. Okay. Fine. My last loaf, baked just yesterday, used only 1 tablespoon of yeast and, I swear, I think it was the prettiest, biggest loaf yet! So, for what it's worth, I made an editorial correction in the April 1st post and if any of you have already copied off that recipe, you might want to make the correction on your own copy.

To make up for my spendy blunder, let me give you a heads-up for what looks like a truly great baking site I just found. This link takes you to the Bread Baking Center of a place called The Prepared Pantry. I'm still wandering around the site, trying to take it all in. Not only can you order supplies and equipment there, should you choose, you can help yourself to several free and most excellent e-books on assorted baking subjects. Explanations, photos, recipes ... I've made the first download of their Free Baking Book (it comes in at a chapter a week) and I am IMPRESSED.

See? There are lots of neat things to do while it's raining!

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Is this legal?

Ah gee. That photo isn't as sharp as it should be but I was in a hurry to eat the subject and didn't take time to check first. In any case, what you see there is a toasted slice of pan de agua slathered with some homemade seasoned cream cheese. Not just any homemade cream cheese, either. Nossir, nope, uh-uh. This is posilutely, absotively the easiest-to-make cream cheese in this whole world -- and several outer planets.

That's just one of the reasons I would urge you to try it -- provided, of course, that you even like cream cheese. If you don't, all bets are off. But if you love using cream cheese for all kinds of things, as I do, but can't always afford to stock it, as I can't, you're gonna love this version.

One: you make the cream cheese from plain yogurt, which, ounce for ounce, will cost you roughly half as much money for at least twice as much product.

Two: less calories than regular cream cheese and healthier for you.

Three: can be used anywhere you'd use regular cream cheese, sour cream or yogurt. Very versatile, this incredible, spreadable edible is.

Four: did I mention it's so easy to make, it's probably illegal? Shhhh. Don't tell.

What you do is, you buy a quart (32 ounces) of plain yogurt. Read the label and try for one with all the good live cultures in it. Then you take a strainer or colander such as the one pictured here and line it with a couple layers of damp cheesecloth or coffee filters. Obviously, I used the coffee filters.

Hang the strainer on the edge of a bowl and put the whole shebang in the refrigerator for at least overnight. In the morning you will be amazed to see about 1 1/4 cups of whey has drained out and you have -- tahdah! -- close to 3 cups of cream cheese.

Now, the recipe I used (and there are several just like it online) didn't say anything about topping the yogurt with a weight but I later discovered there are versions that do suggest that. I guess I could lay a coffee filter and then a plate on top of the yogurt and weigh it down with a can of corn or something. Certainly more of the whey would be pressed out and the texture would be closer to the bricks of cream cheese you buy in the store.

(Utterly silly aside: the way to whey is to weigh. Sorry. Mild language digression.)

Some versions of the recipe tell you to add your seasoning before you drain the yogurt. Not a bad idea as that gives the flavors time to set in. Also, if you're using any dehydrated veggies like onion, garlic or whatever, they have time to plump up and hydrate. I didn't think of that, of course. Even so, a few short hours after mixing the seasoning in, the flavor is wonderful and the dried onion and garlic pleasingly moist.

There is this -- plain yogurt has a strong sharpness to its flavor compared with, say, sour cream. I don't mind that if I'm using yogurt in cooking but as a spread or topping, I'm not crazy about it. On the other hand, I don't want to add sugar or honey to take the edge off. However, I just happen to have a box of Stevia powder packets -- no calories. One little packet worked perfectly to soften the bite of the yogurt without messing with its character.

As to what kind of seasoning you use, that's entirely up to you and what particular use you may have for this batch of yogurt cream cheese. I wanted to go savory and a bit on the spicy side so I tossed in plenty of seasoned salt, fresh-ground mixed peppercorns, a dash of cayenne, dried onion and garlic, some Montreal steak seasoning and a good dose of dried dill weed. Of course, fresh herbs would be terrific if you have access to any.

How am I going to use this batch? Well, let me count the ways. I've already enjoyed it as a spread on toast. It will also make a wonderful topping for a baked potato and, mixed with grated cheddar cheese, will be magnificent on some steamed cauliflower. It will lend itself beautifully to being mixed with the mayo and other dressing ingredients for cole slaw. If there is still any left after all that, I'll probably whup up a batch of the best shrimp dip in the world.

And then I'll go buy another quart of yogurt.

P.S. I see Jo successfully tried the pan de agua. Good ON ya, Jo! Did anyone else get a chance to try it? I'm about to whup up another loaf myself.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

This is NOT an April Foolish

Given the April Foolish date, I was going to give you a long line of blather about being kidnapped by aliens and hitchhiking around the galaxy with some of Douglas Adams' friends. After I thunk on it awhile, I decided you probably wouldn't believe I had an in with that bunch. Which I don't, but why should that stop me?

Anyhoo, a much better option presented itself. Have any of you ever heard of pan de agua? That means "water bread" and is a staple in South American and Central American cultures. The curious thing is, I first learned of this gem in a murder mystery. No, I don't remember which one. Then I read about it in another murder mystery and, ohmygosh, even an article written by a murder mystery author. In every instance, pan de agua was spoken of in terms of reverence and maybe even good old-fashioned lust. How could I not start Googling to see what all the fuss was about?

Okay, you will find, should you choose to Google the subject yourself, there are variations on pan de agua but I think the most very basic recipe is this: Dissolve 3 tablespoons yeast in 1 cup of warm water. [Editorial correction: Please note, 1 tablespoon or 1 pack of dry yeast works wonderfully well. I no longer use the 3 T. amount. Your call. Explanation in post for April 21.] Add to a mixture of 3 cups flour and 1 tablespoon kosher salt. Mix well and knead until smooth and satiny. Let rise. Punch down and shape into desired form. Let rise again and bake at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden-brown.

So simple, right? I could not, of course, leave well enough alone so I added 2 tablespoons butter and 2 heaping tablespoons powdered sugar. (If I'd used granulated sugar, I would have only added 1 tablespoon.) Also, feeling absolutely no need to knead, I tossed it all in my bread machine and put it on the dough cycle.

There are any number of ways to treat the dough before you bake it. You can do it in a regular bread pan. You can divide it into 8 portions and shape into rolls. You can stretch it out like a loaf of french bread. With either the rolls or the french bread style, slash the top with a sharp knife before the final rise. Then, when it comes out of the oven, brush the crust with olive oil to keep it nice and tender.

Don't take my word for it. This bread is so flippin' quick and easy, you've just got to try it for yourself. By hand, by stand mixer, by bread machine -- hey, kidnap a teenager off the street and force them to do the kneading by threatening to play all your Barry Manilow tapes. You will be amazed at how wonderful this bread tastes, how light and smooth its texture. No wonder our southern neighbors have it for breakfast every morning. Oh my -- the sandwiches you could make with this.

I can't say why I only heard about pan de agua in murder mysteries but it must have something to do with the fact that it's bread to die for. Right? You don't believe me? Try it. Really. Just try it. You'll thank me.