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Archive for the ‘breads’ Category

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At one point, maybe a few years after I arrived in Chicago, I picked up a second job out of necessity. My boyfriend had just started law school and my regular M-F office job just wasn’t making the ends meet. We needed some extra cash so I sacrificed my weekends. The gig was behind the counter at a fancy Italian deli/grocer where I primarily worked the register and bakery case. It wasn’t an overly difficult job and despite the tired, zombie-like haze I was in most of the time, I enjoyed it. I learned a lot about prosciutto and balsamic vinegar those winter months. I learned about porcini and olive oil and fancy jams imported from far away places. I learned that you comp the neighborhood cops their morning coffee so they will kindly take care of that illegally parked Jaguar out front within minutes. Most importantly, I learned that working in a deli means free leftover food at the end of the night, a very important thing to young struggling professionals who have high tastes and a low budget.
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Soft squishy rolls are my kryptonite. I love them. Yeasty, pillowy and a little sweet, they are heaven. Smeared with butter and a little honey, I don’t even want to admit how many I can inhale in record time. I never know where I’m going to find the good ones, and it’s important to note that not all of them are good. In fact, few are. It’s also important to note that while some store bought rolls can be good (hello Kings Hawaiian), the good ones are nearly always homemade. They tend to show up unexpectedly – family picnics, old school bakeries and casual restaurants where the food is cooked from scratch. But the funny thing is, the good bakers tend to be tight with these recipes for some reason; more so than others. Bread loyalty runs deep I guess.

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For reasons that baffle many, myself included, its damn near impossible to get a good bagel outside of New York City. Maybe Montreal; they get a pass. Some say it’s the water, others say it’s the flour but I think it’s the technique. Making good bagels is complicated, involved and time consuming. You have to develop the proper amount of gluten in the dough and do a long, slow cold rise that sometimes lasts 2 days to develop that distinct flavor and texture. Then the coddled rounds of dough need to be poached in a solution of lightly sweetened water spiked with lye to develop that distinctive crust before a relatively short bake at a high temperature. Sure, bagel shops abound nationwide. Not the same. I find them to be universally bready, lacking in that toothsome chew that makes a bagel great. You can buy them in the bakery section of your local grocery store but they more resemble a dense onion roll. And yes, there they are in the freezer section. Walk away. I was raised on Lender’s and they are an abomination. Unless you live in NY with a bagel shop on the corner (and even those are becoming harder to find these days), there’s only one solution to this conundrum. Make your own. It’s not as difficult as you may think.

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I have a banana problem. Maybe you do too. I frequently buy a few and never get around to eating more than one. So why don’t I buy them just one a time? Who knows. Maybe somewhere deep in my subconscious, a single banana is a sad, solitary thing. Maybe it needs a friend. Instead, I let the extras sit on the counter, first spotting then slowly turning from brown to darker brown and perfuming the kitchen with their sweet, cloying scent. Yep. Welcome to my life. Then, when I get around to it, I’ll peel the squishy things and pop them into a Ziploc which is shoved mercilessly into the freezer to deal with at a later time. Which is when the fun starts because now they’re ready for banana bread at the drop of a hat. And I do so love banana bread. Which is also great because guess what?? It’s National Banana Bread Day! YES! Another weird wacky food holiday on my recent list of weird wacky food holidays!

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The day before Christmas Eve, my mom and I wandered about Whole Foods picking up miscellaneous things for our holiday dinner. We spent an inordinate amount of time at the cheese counter, discussing cow vs. goat vs. sheep, what types of salamis might be good, and circling the olive bar with a highly critical eye, making sure to buy extra amounts of our particular favorites. When the subject of crackers vs. bread came up, I emphatically stated crackers but was a little bored by the thought. Water crackers, oh joy. We needed to zip this charcuterie platter up! Then while waiting for some sliced proscuitto, I looked down. Raincoast Crisps. Perfect.

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This recipe started out as crackers. I had quite a bit of cotija cheese left from a prior recipe and given that it’s a bit similar to parmesan, I thought to make a cheese cracker. An ever so slightly sweet, crisp wheat cracker spiked with some heat – a Mexican inspired Wheat Thin of sorts. The thing is, the idea was solid but what came out of the oven? Not so much. Though the friends I hoisted my experiments onto disagreed, I thought they were too crispy, too bland and too blah. They liked them but I didn’t think they were quite right and I wasn’t sure how to fix what I saw as the problem. Which was everything. So I gave up and changed direction. You have to know when to throw in the towel on occasion.

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It’s officially October, which means it’s time for the annual Unprocessed October Challenge. Coming off the wanton abandonment that is the summer months, full of travels and adventures and an appetite to match, my eating habits need some firm redirection. It’s little things that creep up on me, mainly due to sheer exhaustion and a whole lot of laziness. The irony of being a professional cook is that what you do all day for other people leaves you little energy and interest in doing it for yourself. Take out, delivery, drive thrus and shortcuts become the bane of our existence. Because shortcuts are easier and that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? A multi-billion dollar food industry is built upon that very premise. So I take this month to get things back on track, especially before the holidays hit and things go off the rails again.

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