Looking for a simple snack to eat during halftime today, Robert and I settled on fish tacos. But of course, nothing is ever simple with me. Rather than waste my money on a 200-pack of stale grocery store corn tortillas, I decided to whip up my own. Corn tortillas are actually pretty easy to make. If you have a tortilla press, they are even easier. I don’t plan on making enough tortillas in my life to justify buying (and finding room for) a tortilla press so I would be rolling my tortillas by hand, a slightly daunting task. Fortunately, I only needed enough for a few fish tacos.

I picked up a small bag of Bob’s Red Mill Masa Harina. It’s probably sacrilegious to use masa from Oregon but, again, I really don’t need a 10-pound bag of Mexican masa (even if it is the same price as Bob’s Red Mill.) To make tortilla dough, you simply mix two parts masa to one part water. Then, you form the dough into balls, roll the balls out into thin disks and cook them in an ungreased skillet until browned and pliable. To keep the dough from sticking to the rolling pin, many recipes will tell you to put it between two sheets of plastic wrap. People who make tortillas often usually use cut up pieces of ziploc bag instead – the ziploc bag is sturdier than plastic wrap and lends more support to the fragile tortilla dough. I didn’t feel like wasting a bunch of ziploc bags so I used a combination of parchment on the bottom and plastic wrap on top. The parchment was supportive while the plastic wrap allowed me to see what I was doing. I was able to use the same piece of parchment over and over, making it a much less wasteful process. My other trick was to use the bottom of a heavy pan to press my dough balls flat (acting as sort of a makeshift tortilla press.) This gave the tortillas a perfect round shape. Then, I used a rolling pin to get them nice and thin.

The tortillas were awesome! So much better than store bought. They were a little thick and crispy in some spots but, surprisingly, they didn’t break apart at all (after browning in the skillet, I steamed them briefly in the microwave to soften them up.) I filled the tacos with blackened halibut, lime-marinated cabbage, chipotle crema and sliced avocado. The filling was good, but the fresh, flavorful tortillas were what really made this dish. I may have spent the whole first half of the game in the kitchen making tortillas, but these delicious halftime tacos were totally worth the effort!

As soon as my mom mentioned that she wanted to throw a pizza party for her and my sister’s birthdays (known collectively in our family as “the January birthdays”) I just knew that I’d be tasked with making the dough. That’s what I get for bragging about my sourdough pizza crust on this blog! Instead of whining about it, I decided to use this as an opportunity to do a pizza crust tasting. I’ve tried many different crust recipes over the years. However, because I am usually only cooking for Robert and myself, I typically just make one dough at a time – I never get to try the pizzas side by side to determine which crust I truly prefer. For our pizza party, we were planning on making five or six pizzas – assuming that one batch of dough makes two pizzas, this meant that I could try three different crust recipes.

I was really curious to see how a sourdough crust would measure up against a yeast-based crust so, for my first dough, I used the sourdough crust recipe that I wrote about in my last post. I followed the recipe as written except that this time I let the dough rest overnight in the refrigerator hoping that the long rest period would allow the dough to develop a more complex sourdough flavor. For my second dough, I used this recipe from Cooks Illustrated. This is an unusual recipe in that it calls for cake flour. Cake flour has a very low protein content which makes it a soft flour – it is ideal for delicate pastries and cookies but not so great for breads and, one would presume, pizza crusts. According to the folks at Cooks Illustrated, the cake flour makes it easier to replicate the thin, crisp crusts found in Neapolitan pizzerias. Finally, I made the basic pizza crust recipe from How to Cook Everything but, to keep things interesting, I followed the variation that calls for replacing 1/2 cup of the flour with 1/2 cup cornmeal. I didn’t have any cornmeal on hand so I ground up some coarse polenta instead.

We made three different pizzas: Margherita (mozzarella and basil), Italian sausage and sweet pepper, and delicata squash with gorgonzola and sage. The sausage and the squash pizzas were the favorites as far as toppings, but I was mostly interested to hear which crust my family liked best. The Cooks Illustrated crust was immediately declared the loser of the three. It was (not surprisingly) much softer than the other two, and it didn’t have much in the way of flavor. The cornmeal crust and the sourdough crust both had better flavor and a pleasantly chewy, crunchy texture. Members of my family were split as to which they preferred. Most agreed that the cornmeal crust had the best flavor overall, but it was too gritty for some (my fault for using polenta instead of true cornmeal – had I used a finely-ground cornmeal, the cornmeal crust surely would have been the winner.) The sourdough crust, while not quite as flavorful as the cornmeal crust (despite my extra long rest period), did have a better texture. Next time I make pizza, I might just have to split the difference and try a sourdough-cornmeal crust!

I’ve been enjoying baking even more than usual since I got my hands on some sourdough starter. Yeast certainly has its place in the kitchen, but using sourdough starter makes me feel like a serious baker. I’ve used my sourdough starter to make sourdough loaves, rye bread, ciabatta and the very festive Red Wine Loaf with Pine Nuts and Figs that I made for the holidays. Last night, I decided to make a household favorite – pizza. Only this time, instead of my regular yeast crust, I thought I’d make a sourdough crust!

Simplicity is the key when it comes to pizza. The sourdough crust recipes that I found online were exceedingly simple: starter, flour, salt and olive oil. In fact, after all the baking I’ve been doing, I was kind of taken aback by their simplicity. Most recipes listed amounts in cups rather by weight. I’ve gotten really accustomed to bread recipes being by weight (a much more accurate way of measuring ingredients) so this really stood out to me. Even more surprising was the fact that they all simply called for “starter.” What kind of starter? 100% hydration? 50%? Fed with what type of flour exactly? I guess I’m turning into a bit of a baking nerd.

I generally keep my starter at 100% hydration which means that I feed it with equal parts water and flour (by weight.) Some people prefer to keep their starter on the firm side by feeding it with a higher ratio of flour to water. Obviously, the hydration level of your starter impacts the amount of additional flour needed to make dough which is why I was surprised to see so many recipes calling for generic “starter.” Starting with 1-1/2 cups of 100% starter as the base from which to build my dough, I mixed in just under 1-1/2 cups of bread flour, a bit of salt and a drizzle of olive oil. The dough seemed a little stiff so I added small amounts of water until I had a nice, soft dough.

Many of the recipes I read said that, for sourdough pizza crust, rising wasn’t required and that the starter was only added for flavor. I was dubious so I ignored those recipes and let my dough rise anyway – seeing dough rise is one of my favorite aspects of baking! I put my dough together after work and, by the time dinner rolled around, it had nearly doubled in size. As I was rolling the dough out, I was struck by how much more elastic it was than my regular yeast dough. On the one hand, this was great because I was able to really stretch it thin without fear of ripping a hole in it. On the other hand, the elasticity made rolling it out pretty difficult – the dough really wanted to snap back into place. Eventually, I got it to relax (and I got the benefit of a workout in the process.)

I added my toppings: roasted red bells, olives, and Italian Field Roast. Then I baked my pizza on a hot stone in the oven. 12 minutes later, I had a crunchy, bubbly, beautiful pizza! Although the dough was made with sourdough starter, it didn’t have a sour flavor at all. You really have to work at developing that sour flavor and 2 hours of rise time isn’t going to do it (refrigerating the dough overnight would probably work.) The crust had a nice clean flavor and a good contrast of crunchy bottom and chewy interior. Robert said he could detect a difference between this and my yeast crust. I think both are good, with the sourdough crust having a slight edge over the yeast crust simply because it was easier to put together.

Click here for my Sourdough Pizza Crust recipe >>

Looking for a festive bread to make during this holiday season? Allow me to suggest this Red Wine Loaf with Pine Nuts and Figs. This bread is originally from Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf, but I made the adapted version on Wild Yeast (a great resource for anyone interested in learning how to bake delicious bread; the recipes are all accompanied by gorgeous photos and very detailed directions.) The flavor base for this special and rather unusual bread is formed by dried figs and pine nuts that have been soaked overnight in red wine (how can you possibly go wrong with that combination of flavors?) Despite the fact that it calls for both sourdough starter and instant yeast, this bread doesn’t rise much. It is a dense bread, but the denseness is well matched by the rich, sweet flavor of the figs. I love the wacky cross-hatch pattern on top! Red Wine Loaf with Pine Nuts and Figs is delicious toasted and slathered with cream cheese or goat cheese. We’ve been having it that way for dessert all week long with the last of our farmer’s market apples. A true winter treat!

Miang kum is a popular Thai dish consisting of coconut, peanuts, ginger, lime, chilies, shallots, and dried shrimp topped off with a sweet sauce and wrapped up in a fresh betel leaf. The entire bundle is eaten in one bite creating an amazing burst of flavor in the mouth! When Robert and I were in Thailand last March, we discovered miang kum candy. Like the dish it is based on, this miang kum candy was sweet, salty, spicy, crunchy and totally addictive. We bought all of the packages we could find to take home with us even though I fully expected that I would be able to find it at Uwajimaya. Unfortunately, I was wrong! I haven’t been able to find my beloved miang kum candy anywhere!

Since I can’t find miang kum candy in Seattle, I decided to experiment with making my own. I know next to nothing about making candy so I wasn’t really sure where to begin. A search for coconut candy on the internet resulted in many recipes for soft, red and green dyed coconut squares – not even close to what I was looking for. Then I remembered those light and crispy sesame candies that you sometimes find in Mexican and Asian stores. That was exactly the type of candy base I needed. I quickly found a sesame candy recipe that couldn’t be simpler: heat brown sugar and honey in a pot, add sesame seeds (or, in my case, miang kum ingredients) and then spread out on parchment to cool. For the most part, I used fresh ingredients just as you would use for real miang kum: fresh ginger, fresh lime zest, etc. My only concessions were to replace fresh Thai bird chilies with cayenne pepper and to use caramelized shallots instead of raw shallots (nobody wants raw shallots in their candy!)

I was doubtful that these would turn out on my first try, but the flavor ended up being spot on! My candies tasted even more like real miang kum than the candy we had in Thailand (probably a result of my using fresh ingredients.) The only downside is that they never hardened up as I expected they would. I wanted something crispy, but these were more like miang kum “chews.” Maybe the fresh ingredients that I used added just enough moisture to the mix to prevent it from hardening fully. Still, they tasted great and I found myself snacking on more than I probably should. Robert went crazy for them and took the leftovers to work to share. If you are craving a mixture of spicy and sweet, take a walk on the wild side with this exotic and unique treat.

Click here for my Miang Kum Candy recipe >>

Check out the scary cheddar spread that I made for my company’s Halloween party. Okay, so there isn’t anything all that scary about the spread itself (I mean, the recipe is a little white trash which, in a way, is scary.) The truly creepy part of this dish is my kalamata spider garnish. The spiders weren’t nearly as labor intensive to make as last year’s skull and bones crostini, but I think they’re just as cool. Simply use half an olive for the body, and then cut thin strips for the legs. If you wanted to up the creep factor, you could even use a couple of peppercorns to replicate those gross bulging eyeballs that spiders sometime have. I didn’t go there – the shiny, black kalamata skin gave these spiders enough of a menacing quality for my taste! Happy Halloween!

On last week’s episode of Mad Men, Don Draper snapped at his secretary and chauvinistically demanded “Get me a bear claw!” Robert thought it was hilarious and has been saying it to me all week long (yeah, real funny Robert.) In the end, I relented. I’m such a good woman. It was kind of hard to say no when I was already planning to make breakfast this Sunday and I just happened to have all of the ingredients on hand for bear claws (even almond extract, which is amazing considering how tightly I control the kitchen’s inventory – normally, if I discover an ingredient that I haven’t used in the past year, I toss it.)

Once I started researching bear claw recipes, I realized that I didn’t actually know what a bear claw was. I mean, I knew that it was a pastry and was made to look like a bear claw but, if you were to ask me what a bear claw is traditionally filled with, I would have been clueless. You would think, with a cool name like bear claw, I would have eaten one once as a child. Robert says kids usually pass them over because they aren’t filled with jelly or covered in sprinkles and frosting – makes sense. Traditional bear claws are indeed quite simple – a sweet yeast dough filled with an almond paste filling and topped with slivered almonds. Like everything else, they have been bastardized; nowadays, you see doughnuts and fritters being passed off as bear claws or, worse, bear claws that are filled with chocolate chips and coconut.

I decided to keep things traditional with my bear claws. I found a dough recipe online that was easy and called for significantly less butter than most. I made the dough Saturday evening reducing much of the work the next morning. Most of the filling recipes I saw called for almond paste, an expensive ingredient that I did not have on hand and wasn’t willing to buy. Instead, I used a combination of ground almonds and a few drops of almond extract. I didn’t have quite enough almonds so the filling ended up on the thin side and oozed out the sides of the claws a bit (refrigerating the filling overnight might have helped to remedy this.) The process of assembling the bear claws wasn’t difficult and, since I was only making six, it wasn’t very time-consuming. I used the instructive photos over at Joe Pastry (where, incidentally, I also got the recipe for the filling) as a guide. The only thing I did differently was to place the rolls seam side down. Also, I didn’t have any slivered almonds so I used some sliced almonds to make decorative claws instead. My bear claws tasted great, and I think they turned out pretty cute too!

Click here for my Bear Claw recipe >>

It’s officially fall, and the weather in Seattle the past few days has really driven that point home. This weekend’s gray skies and cool weather put me in the mood to turn on the oven and bake! Lucky for me, I had plenty of opportunities to do so.

On Saturday, my knitting group hosted a bake sale to raise money for the Obama campaign. This definitely wasn’t your typical bake sale. The knitters’ plan was to target the late night bar crowd on Pike Street in the center of Capitol Hill’s clubs and bars. Pitching baked goods to hipsters and drunks? Genius! I helped out by making Heidi Swanson’s peanut butter cookies. I’m not really into vegan baked goods, but these looked so yummy that I couldn’t resist. They turned out a bit softer than I normally like but had plenty of delicious peanut butter flavor. I finished my cookies with a light dusting of gray sea salt (I wasn’t trying to be fancy or anything; I just know that drunks are drawn to salty foods.) I couldn’t participate in the sale itself, but we stopped by for a quick visit and got to witness plenty of zany late night action and a number of sales too (some people even asked for vegan treats – woo hoo!) It was surely a lot of work (the bake sale ran until 2:00 AM) but the team raked in a whopping $400. Good job knitters!

Cookies are easy to make, but bread is another story and my bread-making skills have proven to be pretty mediocre so far. My sister, on the other hand, is slowly becoming an expert so we decided to get together on Sunday for a bread-making day. Our first bread of the day was a ciabatta. This can be a tricky bread; mixing, shaping and baking the bread is actually very easy, but ciabatta has a tendency to form one huge air pocket inside rather than a bunch of small ones. Three out of our four loaves were plagued with this giant pocket problem, but the bread tasted so good we didn’t care. In addition to the ciabatta, we made sourdough rounds using my sister’s homemade starter as the base. We mixed the dough and shaped the loaves but didn’t bake them; in order to develop that signature sour flavor, the loaves need to sit overnight in the refrigerator. It was a great day – I learned quite a bit (especially about the benefits of folding and stretching the dough vs. punching it down) and I came home with two loaves of ciabatta, two uncooked loaves of sourdough and a little jar of starter. I baked the sourdough tonight and served it with a hearty soup – delicious!

While our breads were rising, we snuck off to Bakery Nouveau for lunch. Bakery Nouveau is widely regarded as one of Seattle’s best bakeries. What a place to go for some baking inspiration! Their breads are all beautiful and their croissants are like none that I’ve ever seen before – super crispy and browned, not soft and squishy like most croissants. I had a delicious caprese sandwich made with some kind of chewy, hearty bread. While we were there, they were passing out free samples of recently-baked items including a peanut butter cookie that completely put mine to shame (sorry vegans, cookies just aren’t the same without butter.)

Sunday evening, we headed over to our friend Jason’s house for more baked goods, this time in the form of pizza. Jason has been making pizza from scratch every week and has a clever method for making the crust. He grills the crust on one side on an outdoor grill and then adds the toppings and finishes the pizza in a hot oven. The grill gives the crust a subtle smoky flavor, but finishing it in the oven allows you to get the cheese nice and browned. Because the crust is partially cooked before it goes in the oven, there is no fear of it sticking to the pizza paddle (the tool used to transfer the pizza to the oven.) With this method, you could easily make a bunch of crusts at once and freeze them. Simply do the first step of grilling and then transfer the grilled crusts to the freezer. Next time you are craving pizza, it can be ready in mere moments! The pizzas were delicious, and I even got to make one myself. Fall kicked off to a carb-heavy start, but I’m perfectly okay with that!

Atole is perhaps best known as a traditional Mexican beverage made from masa (cornmeal), water, brown sugar, sweet spices and sometimes chocolate or fruit. In New Mexico however, atole more commonly refers to a finely ground cornmeal made from blue corn or the porridge derived from it. Blue corn chips are pretty common these days, but since blue corn is native to the region, it finds its way into many traditional New Mexican dishes. Enchiladas made with blue corn tortillas are about as authentically New Mexican as you can get. Unlike regular cornmeal, blue corn atole is ground so fine that it resembles flour. In that respect, it can be used in place of flour in virtually any kind of bread or baked good except, ironically, for blue corn tortillas; for that coarser ground blue cornmeal is used (although, I suppose you could get creative and mix a little blue corn atole with some flour and make blue corn-flour tortillas!)

In New Mexico, blue corn atole is mixed with hot water to make a very austere beverage that is traditionally consumed by the elderly (for energy) and the sick (for its reputed healing qualities.) It is often served for breakfast much like cream of wheat. A plain, grayish porridge made from just water and atole doesn’t exactly sound like the most appetizing food in the world. In fact, Huntley Dent, author of The Feast of Santa Fe found it to be so awful that, although he writes about it for the sake of providing a comprehensive look at New Mexican cuisine, he makes a specific point of not providing a recipe. However, neither Robert nor his mom seems to think that this beverage is particularly bad. Perhaps it is a taste acquired only by those born in New Mexico. Perhaps the sentimental memory of being home sick on a cold day improves the taste. Or, maybe Robert and his mom are just pulling my leg. I’m dubious but curious. Next time I am sick, I’m going to try it (I’ll just keep a bottle of honey or cocoa powder nearby in case it needs a little something.)

For my first experiment with blue corn atole, I decided to go with a much less risky choice: pancakes! Inspired the blue corn atole & piñon pancakes that I had at Tecolote Café in Santa Fe, I set out to make my own version. Using a basic buttermilk pancake recipe as my base, I simply replaced half of the flour with blue corn atole and then threw in a handful of toasted pine nuts. I used plain yogurt thinned with a little milk in place of the buttermilk because that’s what I had on hand. Also, because I prefer my pancakes thin and crispy as opposed to fluffy and cakey, I added more liquid than the recipe called for. They were super easy and delicious! The pine nuts added a special texture and richness while the subtle earthy flavor of the blue corn atole proved to be the perfect foil for plenty of warm maple syrup. The atole also gave these pancakes a pretty lavender hue. What a fun twist on pancakes!

Click here for my Blue Corn Atole-Piñon Pancakes recipe >>

For the past few months, I’ve been trying to devote a portion of every Sunday to one or more cooking projects. Yogurt, ravioli, fresh fruit popsicles, Thai curry pastes…these are all things that I enjoy making on a Sunday afternoon. But, my favorite Sunday project is homemade bread. I really think Sundays were meant for baking bread. I’ve gotten pretty good at making freshloaf.com’s Daily Bread so, this Sunday, I decided it was time to branch out and try something new: Multigrain Struan. I don’t know what a struan is, but the photos of this bread looked so good that I couldn’t resist trying it. Plus, I liked the fact that it was chock full of whole grains. If you go overboard snacking on this bread, you don’t have to feel bad about it!

There isn’t anything too complicated about this recipe; you just need to plan ahead a little bit. The day before you plan to bake the bread, you mix up a batch of sturdy whole wheat dough and place it in the refrigerator to rest overnight. You also make a sort of porridge out of milk, flour and mixed whole grains (both cooked and uncooked.) The porridge is left out at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours (I made mine right after I made the dough and let both sit overnight.) The next day, you combine the dough and the porridge together with a few other ingredients and, from that point on, the process is no different than it is for regular bread (knead, rise, shape, rise again and bake.)

I’m always a little leery about bread recipes that call for only whole wheat flour because they have a tendency to turn out rather dense. In this recipe, I used whole wheat flour whenever it was called for except in the step where you combine the dough and porridge and are told to add extra flour to achieve the right consistency. At that point, I switched to all-purpose flour. In the end, I probably used about 2.5 cups of whole wheat flour and 1 cup of all-purpose flour. For the whole grains, I cooked up some wild rice along with the remnants of a bag of Trader Joe’s Brown Rice Medley which contains brown rice, black barley and daikon radish seeds. For the uncooked grains, I used coarse polenta and red quinoa. The colorful seeds and grains sprinkled throughout made this a very pretty dough. For added texture, I topped my loaf off with a smattering of poppyseeds.

The bread turned out delicious! It smelled and tasted just like a really good, whole-grain bread should. It was slightly sweet with a crisp crust and a soft, moist interior. My only complaint is that the overall texture wasn’t as uniform as I would have liked. The bread was a bit denser toward the bottom of the loaf. I’m thinking that, since is shaped and baked in a pan, maybe the bottom didn’t have enough room to expand. Next time, I will try making it into a couple of small free-form loaves instead. This recipe would also make excellent dinner rolls. This is the perfect bread for two of my favorite indulgences: havarti cheese, sweet onion and avocado sandwiches and toast slathered with good, crunchy peanut butter.

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