September 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yesterday in the late afternoon, I put on a sweatshirt and leggings and my Frye boots and walked the five minutes to Cortland Avenue, our little bustling main street in our little town of a neighborhood within the big city. It had warmed up over the course of the day, but now the fog was coming back in, descending on the valley from Twin Peaks across the way. It was a pretty simple errand: We were out of milk after I made ice cream, and I needed to return a movie to the neighborhood video store.

But as I made the turn onto the last side street, and dunked under a couple of branches of hanging vines with bright violet flowers, I noticed that the sense of adventure was gone. Nothing was exciting, majestic, romantic or exhilarating. There was just the moment when I was standing at the top of the stairs, looking out over the rooftops, with my view blurred white, when the world seemed to stand still. The smile and nod from the driver of the car just passing by. The pink peonies hiding behind an unruly tree streetside. The guy at the video embarrassing a high school girl at checkout by telling her how much she is starting to look like her older sister. The dry, crispy grass at the top of the hill, where, if you look closely at the very peak, by the fence around the radio transmitter, you’ll find opened condom packages and broken beer bottles. But if you sit up there in the dark, as we always did at least once every summer, you can see the Bay on all three sides and the light outline of Mission Street as it stretches across the city.

Why am I saying all of this? Because I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle the other day about people living in San Francisco actually hating the city that really didn’t seem to get the city quite right. That’s not exactly an uncommon thing these days unfortunately — the Chronicle not exactly getting things right. Because in the midst of the people arguing that they had to leave the city to escape the trashiness, the odors that permeate certain alleys, and the skyrocketing housing prices, people arguing that the city has lost its soul, it’s still there. And it’s still here every time I come home. And it’s not going anywhere. What’s gone is opening up the Sunday issue of the Chronicle straight to the Food section and pouring over the photos with a mug of hot chocolate on the couch because that kind of journalism doesn’t seem to exist anymore. What’s gone is sitting at the counter of the neighborhood bakeshop and eating croissants that weren’t quite right and were just a wee bit heavy because now there’s a new bakery two blocks away with the perfect buttery flakes. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the Twitterverse of this new artisan chocolate truffle and that new farm-to-table restaurant, but it doesn’t quite compare to having sticky fingers from strawberry jam and the smell of buttermilk scones wafting through the house in the morning. It doesn’t quite compare to the tourist who craned his neck at the farmers market last weekend at the plate I was holding for my brother, demanding to know what it was. “It’s a crab cake sandwich,” I replied. “The one I’ve eaten every Saturday morning ever since I can remember.”

I followed this recipe for two (huge) loaves of challah to a tee. This is an oil-based version of the bread, I think next time I will try the milk-based version, which should give a richer, chewy crumb.

Cinnamon Twists

August 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

The house is pretty silent at four in the morning. Outside it’s still dark and inside, I am sitting in bed (my very own bed, finally) wide awake. I have the kettle on for some black currant tea and I’ve already stirred together the crunchy peanut butter to slather on top of rustic baguette with a drizzle of wildflower honey. In my room, there’s my unopened bottle of Moet champagne, my Fry boots and my two teddy bears, Polar Bear and Little Bear (I was a creative youngster), right where I left them when I boarded the plane to Prague back in June. In a couple of hours, my mom will be awake, spooning peanut butter cookie dough onto trays to put in my brother’s lunch, but for the moment the kitchen is all mine. I pour oats into a ceramic mixing bowl and ladle out a quarter cup of maple syrup. Next, I chop raw almonds and hazelnuts and use a tiny spoon to stir everything together, coating the oats and nuts in syrup. I have always loved little spoons — the ones you use to stir sugar in coffee — and I use them whenever possible, even when they’re not practical. The smell of baking maple syrup wafts through the house and in half and hour there is a tray full of nutty granola sitting on the kitchen counter, ready to be topped with dried apricots and cranberries.

A few hours later, the dark sky has been replaced with a city drenched in thick fog, white mist descending on the rooftops and blurring my vision from the window of the houses across the street. Fresh coffee seeps in the press and I’m taking the yeast out of the fridge, clearing the black marble counter top of the morning’s breakfast. Whole-wheat levain toasted and spread with creamy goat cheese or honey. Tart blueberries and juicy yellow nectarines, much smaller than their European counterparts, only about the size of a baby’s fist, flesh easily pulled away from the pit. I’m pouring over what kind of bread to make, thinking about flours, dense, grey buckwheat and powdery whole-wheat. Honey or molasses.

Before I can decide, I get called away for the morning’s run, a 12-miler through Golden Gate Park, past Stow Lake, along JFK Drive, where I used to spend Sunday mornings bike riding with my parents, before I became terrified of turning on a bike. There’s no explanation for that one, no horror story of a bike accident, just me not liking operating things that move. Down by the cliffs, cold, wispy air brings in the scent of the ocean and there’s no question: I am home.

Cinnamon Twists
From All Recipes
Cinnamon twists have consistently been what my younger brother and I used to order at the neighborhood coffeeshops and bakeries. Wanting to recreate them at home, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go the yeasted brioche dough route or the puff pastry route. This recipe is like a sweet brioche dough, and it worked quite well, but I think if I made them again, I would roll the dough out into much thinner strands and make the twists much smaller, for a much higher cinnamon to bread ratio and bit more of a crunch.

1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
3/4 cup warm water (110 degrees to 115 degrees F), divided
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup warm milk (110 to 115 degrees F)
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 egg

1/4 cup butter, melted
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup warm water. Add 2 cups of flour, sugar, salt, milk, butter, egg and remaining water and beat on medium speed for minutes. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 6-8 minutes. Place the dough in a clean, greased bowl, cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place until dough has doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Punch down the dough and divide into. Roll into a 16-inch by 12-inch rectangle. Brush with butter. Combine brown sugar and cinnamon; sprinkle over butter. Let dough rest for 6 minutes. Cut lengthwise into three 16-inch by 4-inch strips. Cut each strip into sixteen 4-inch by 1-inch pieces. Twist and place on greased baking sheets. Cover again and let rise until doubled, about 30 minutes.

Bake twists at 350 degrees F for 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Say goodbye to home: Whole grain breads

June 9, 2010 § 1 Comment

Awhile ago I mentioned that my family had started baking our own bread. While I was home we made a couple loaves a week, the first being a molasses rye bread and the second a honey whole-wheat walnut bread. I can now honestly say that I do not think I will ever be scared of yeast again. It’s like a baby. Set it in a bowl with a little warm water and a sugar to consume and it will grow, flourish, and make beautiful, tall loaves of bread. To be eaten right out of the oven, still warm and slathered in butter. Bread is one of those wonderful foods whose smell just radiates the feeling of being home. I think it will be the first thing I make in my new house in Washington D.C. (I just moved in two days ago!).

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