Saturday, May 23, 2009

Making Mississippi Hoecakes for NPR's All Things Considered

I've been cooking on the radio again! As the photo shows, I made batch of hoecakes--which look like pancakes, but are actually a type of old fashioned cornbread popular in parts of the South. I used a Mississippi recipe from an interesting new book of authentic American regional fare.

The book, The Food of a Younger Land, by Mark Kurlansky, features material researched and written by a wide variety of authors and funded by the WPA back in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The Government's plans to publish the Federal Writers' Project effort called "America Eats," were abandoned when the U.S. entered World War II. The papers lay buried in boxes in the Library of Congress until Kurlansky sifted through them and put together his new work.

NPR Weekend All Things Considered asked if I would make something from the book, and since American culinary history is a one of my major areas of interest, I was happy to oblige. I chose hoecakes because they are plain and simple subsistence fare and about as American as any dish can be. And, oh yes, as NPR interviewer Jacki Lyden said when she tasted them, they are very, very good; click here to follow along as we made and talked about hoecakes in my kitchen. (We discussed the reason for the name hoecakes; they were originally baked on a hoe held over a fire.)

Hoecakes look a bit like pancakes, but because they are unleavened and prepared with only cornmeal, salt, water and fat for frying, they are thin, crisp, and quite corny--not light or puffy or reminiscent of today's typical pancakes at all. Like most fried doughs, they are best rushed right from the hot skillet to the kitchen table. I like to fry them with an ample amount of fat--a tablespoon each of butter and corn oil per every four cakes--so I don't find it necessary to add any more butter at the table. (But you could add a pat if you really wanted to!) Jacki and I and producer Petra Mayer ate them with a country ham and potato soup from the book, which made a humble and homespun but enormously gratifying meal.


Old-time American cooks hardly ever measured anything, so you don't have to be exacting with this humble recipe either. For each six to eight cakes desired, stir together the following, gradually adding more water until the consistency just "looks right."

Use either white or yellow cornmeal., as desired. The amount of water will vary depending on the brand and level of freshness of the cornmeal, so start with a smaller amount and gradually add more if necessary.

1 cup white or yellow cornmeal
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
Scant 2/3 cup to 3/4 cup water, or more as needed

Butter, bacon grease, lard, solid shortening, or vegetable oil (or a combination) as needed

In a medium bowl, stir together the cornmeal, salt, and enough water to obtain a gruel-like consistency. Let stand while heating a large skillet or griddle over medium-high heat until thoroughly heated. Add 2 tablespoons fat (I like half butter and half oil) for each four cakes prepared.

Continue heating the skillet until a drop of water sizzles when sprinkled on its surface. Using about 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons batter for each cake, spoon out generous tablespoons onto the griddle or skillet (usually about 4 at a time), keeping them well separated. Immediately pat and spread them out into thin rounds. The thinnest rounds will make the crispest hoecakes.

Cook until crispy and lightly browned on one side, then carefully turn over with a wide-bladed spatula and cook until crisp and brown at the edges on the second side; this usually takes 3 or 4 minutes. Serve immediately, with butter, and honey or syrup, if desired.

Makes 6 to 8 3-inch hoecakes. The recipe may be doubled or tripled as desired.
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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Strawberry and Rhubarb Cobbler: Spring in a Bowl

I'm happy to report that my rhubarb plants survived the winter and are now leafing out nicely. I'm guesstimating that the stalks might be big enough to cut by June.

As you can see from the pic, they are still tiny, though experts say it's better to err on the side of harvesting too early when the it's small but very tender. Yes, very mature rhubarb delivers a bigger yield, but it can be less succulent and even become tough and stringy.

I love strawberries and rhubarb together and fortunately there are lots of options, like this homespun strawberry-rhubarb cobbler, or light, refreshing fool, or an amazing (and amazingly easy) strawberry-rhubarb freezer jam click here.

The cobbler is mellowed with a biscuit crust and bursts with flavor--the berries lend a sweet, fruity taste and the rhubarb adds a welcome tang. The recipe is easy to make and guaranteed to be a hit.

If possible use a casserole or baking dish (I love the one in the pic) that can go from stove-top to oven. But if you don't have one, ready the filling in a large, non-reactive saucepan. Then transfer it to an oven-proof casserole or an extra-large and deep pie plate for the baking.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Cobbler

This is one of those dishes that seems to call out for a generous dollop of ice cream or whipped cream. It's best served warm or at room temperature. The recipe is from my Dream Desserts cookbook and the photo was taken by the very talented Marty Jacobs. (My scanned copy really doesn't do his original justice.)

Generous 3/4 cup sugar, plus more to taste
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
6 tablespoons cranberry juice cocktail, or orange juice
3 cups 3/4-inch pieces fresh rhubarb
1 3/4 cups halved fresh strawberries
1 1/4 cups all-purpose white flour
2 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into bits
1 1/2 tablespoons corn oil or canola oil
5 tablespoons milk, plus more if needed

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

For filling: In a non-reactive 3-quart or larger stove-top and oven-proof casserole thoroughly stir together 3/4 cup sugar and cornstarch. Slowly stir in cranberry juice until well blended and smooth. Add rhubarb; cook over medium-high heat, stirring, just until liquid is thickened slightly and clear. Remove from heat; stir in strawberries. Taste and add more sugar, if desired.

For dough: In a medium-sized bowl, thoroughly stir together flour, 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, baking powder and salt. Add butter and oil. Using a pastry blender, forks, or fingertips, cut in fat until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add milk to mixture, tossing with a fork just until evenly incorporated; if it seems dry, add a teaspoon or two extra milk. If mixture seems wet, let it stand 5 minutes to reduce stickiness.
Gently press dough together into a ball. Then press out into a flat 5-inch disc on a sheet of wax paper. Dust dough top with flour. Top with another sheet of paper. Press or roll out into a round slightly small than the diameter of the casserole used. Peel off one sheet of paper. Center dough, dough-side down, over fruit mixture. Peel off and discard second sheet. Make several decorative slashes radiating from center of dough top. Sprinkle reserved 1 tablespoon sugar over top.

Bake in middle third of oven for 35 to 45 minutes or until top is nicely browned and a toothpick inserted in center top comes out clean. Let cool at least 15 minutes before serving.
The cobbler will keep, refrigerated, for up to 3 days. Serve at room temperature or reheated to warm in a low oven.

Makes about 6 servings.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

100 Great Days and Q & A's!

I am excited to say that my new book, Kneadlessly Simple, is about to reach a high water mark--100 consecutive days on the Amazon list of top selling cookbooks! I have been getting a lot of e-mails from people telling me they are happy with the book, and also from folks with questions that I've answered. Since many bakers out there may benefit from the Q & A's, I'm going to post some of them here. (I'll be posting some more in a few weeks). But first, just let me share a couple of the many compliments that have been so gratifying:

"I have fallen in love with your breads and techniques.”

“Two loaves so far have been fabulous and it’s a great way to make bread. A GREATLY NEEDED BOOK!!!”

“This is amazing—I always ruined everything I baked. Now I make great bread and it doesn’t even take any work.”

To check out a copy, go to or for Jessica's Biscuit Click here or for Barnes & Noble Click here.

Now on to the Q & A session:

How Brown is Too Brown?
Q: I’ve been baking your breads and am very happy with them, but my Grandma (she used to be the big baker in the family) thinks they come out looking too brown. Am I doing something wrong?

A: Nope, you are doing everything right! Your grandmother is probably used to breads made the traditional way, and they don’t brown as deeply or as quickly as those produced using the cool, slow-rise method. It’s because the long, slow rise gives certain enzymes that promote browning and lend fuller flavor more time to do their work.
Actually, deeper browning is a hallmark of today’s artisan-style breads. Some professional artisan bakers insist that deep browning is essential to creating a fine loaf. (One well-respected baker I know even posted a note in his new establishment telling customers that his breads were not over-baked, that the darker color meant they would have more flavor.) He’s right to a point, but I feel this is also a matter of personal taste. If you (or your grandmother) like less browning, just lower the baking temperature 25 degrees F from what is recommended in the recipe. Also, cover ing the loaf top with foil (shiny side out) halfway through baking will slow the browning process.

Why Fast-Rising Yeast?
Your recipes all feature a long, slow rise, so why do I need to use “fast-rising” yeast?

A: A very good question! When the “fast-rising” yeasts came on the market in the 1980s, manufacturers dubbed them that to spotlight one of their advantages over the regular active dry yeast. But the newer yeast products have another useful property that makes them just the right choice for the Kneadlessly Simple method; the particles are finer and hydrate more easily. As a result, they can be conveniently added directly into dry ingredients without being activated in warm water first. Unlike ordinary active dry yeast products, the fast-rising kind will grow and leaven well even when the dough is mixed together using ice cold water, a step that’s integral in the Kneadlessly Simple approach.

Whole Wheat Flour for White?
Q:I am a real nut about whole wheat, and wonder if one can use the whole wheat bread flour rather than the white bread flour. I just discovered the whole wheat bread flour at our local natural food store.

A:You are lucky to get whole wheat bread flour—it can be hard to find. If a recipe starts with all white flour, first try substituting whole wheat flour for half of it. If the results are good, then increase the percentage of whole wheat further the next time; you may have to add a little more water than normal. To counteract the slight bitterness of the whole wheat, try adding about 1/3 cup orange juice in with the water. I have found that these suggestions usually work, but, of course, can’t be certain without actually trying them out in a recipe. BTW, there is a really nice 100 percent whole wheat-honey bread in the book that you might want to try.

Over-Browning on the Bottom
I’ve baked several Kneadlessly Simple breads, including the basic loaf. I loved the flavor but it got too brown on the bottom. The buttermilk bread also browned a lot, both on the top and bottom. Any suggestions?

A: The buttermilk bread browns more than many loaves because milk products are sensitive to heat. If the baking pot you used was dark inside, it absorbed heat particularly efficiently, which resulted in even more browning. I suggest setting the oven to 425 degrees F to preheat, and then turning the oven down to 400 degrees F to bake. If it’s convenient, you could also switch to a pot with a light-colored or shiny interior.
I assume you mean the White Peasant-style Pot Boule by the 'basic" loaf. I have both pre-heated the pot and baked this bread at 450 degrees F a number of times without problems. However, I found that in pots with dark-colored interiors, the bread tended to over-brown on the bottom, so I changed my instructions and suggested baking at 425 degrees F. Although this worked in my ovens and pots, it apparently doesn’t in yours. Try dropping the temperature to 400 degrees F for baking and see if that helps. To curtail bottom browning more, try moving the loaf to the middle oven rack. In most ovens, the closer the pot is to the bottom, the browner the loaf bottom will get.

Beating Instead of Stirring?
Q: I would rather use my Kitchen Aid mixer than mix the doughs by hand. Is this okay?

A: Yes indeed! The Kitchen Aid works just fine. You can just dump everything into the big bowl, then mix in the liquids with the paddle—use low speed. Then, just scrape down the bowl and use it for the rises. The second stirring is usually brief, only long enough to deflate, although in cases where powdered milk or egg are added, they can be mixed in with the Kitchen Aid also. You will likely need to switch to the dough hook, as the dough is rubbery from the gluten development at this stage.

Skipping the Salt?
Q: I am reducing the salt in my diet. Can I omit the salt from your recipes?

A: You can reduce the salt, but should not completely eliminate it from yeast doughs. Salt not only improves texture and flavor, but also keeps the yeast from become too fizzy and overactive. I believe it would be fine to reduce the salt by half, or maybe even two-thirds in my recipes but don’t omit it completely. This is true for all yeasted doughs.
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Monday, May 4, 2009

Rioja Restaurant--Downtown Denver's Spot Not to Miss

For foodies, sitting down to a meal with friends and colleagues is an enormous pleasure, especially when someone else does the cooking and the food is outstanding. Several weeks ago during a conference in Denver, I was fortunate to enjoy a wonderful meal with a lively group of culinary friends, including noted baking author and teacher Peter Reinhart and Eating Well editor, Jessie Price. I’d heard good things before I booked a table at Rioja, but this upscale (but not stuffy) downtown eatery delivered everything I’d hoped for and more.

The place was airy and welcoming; the staff professional and attentive (even with a big, noisy Saturday night crowd on hand); and chef Jen Jasinski’s food brightly flavored and artfully presented. We asked her what we shouldn’t miss, and she suggested her handmade pastas, so we ordered little sampler portions of the pea pod ravioli, candied lemon gnocchi, and artichoke tortelloni. All three were tempting, but I thought the ravioli was absolutely amazing.

Our group shared a Rioja “picnic,” appetizer featuring artisan meats, pine nut-crusted goat cheese, olives, and a simple looking, yet spectacularly succulent fennel salad; I’d love a whole plate of that salad right now! And we passed around the “fresh bacon” appetizer that boasted a terrific, curry-scented garbanzo puree. The three entrees we shared—grilled Colorado lamb (shown), slow-roasted Alaskan halibut and curried sea scallops—were also all memorable and so satisfying that we waved off any suggestion of dessert.

If you’re headed for Denver, don’t miss a chance to try Jasinski’s stylish, creative fare. It more than measures up to the food of many of the high profile East Coast restaurants I’ve visited over the last couple years. If you need a weekend evening reservation, be sure to book ahead. Rioja is at 1431 Larimer Sq, Denver, 303/820-2282.
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