Friday, June 25, 2010

Slow Bread

Lately, I've been making Slow Bread. It's the bread I make when I've neglected my sourdough starter, but I want the deep flavor and chewy texture of a long, slow fermentation. The idea is simple: long, cold rising encourages flavorful lacto-fermentation, instead of astringent yeasty-flavored alcoholic fermentation. I positively detest the flavor of over-yeasted bread.

Slow Bread is also very convenient for the work week. I can mix it up before bed, knead it down just before I leave for work the next morning, and shape it into loaves when I get home. You can even let it go for a third rising in the bowl before shaping it -- so long as the weather's not too hot.

About that weather. I've been wearing wool for a week and my hands are growing bony with the cold. The cats have cabin fever and quarrel over my lap. It's deathly still for a moment and we are so stuck, so trapped, so entombed in this wretched fog. It's only June, but my heart quails at the thought of another horrid mummified summer on this godforsaken peninsula.

I suppose it's clear that my distaste for this weather is not unmixed with a certain macabre fascination. I like to take long walks among the shrouded eucalyptus trees, and I'm grateful when I don't have to see all the sunny-day people. But a macabre fascination in no way makes up for missing out on summer. And the summers I miss are not even golden breezy affairs, but sickly hot things spent working in the orchard with gnats up my nose and peach fuzz adhering to my sweat.

Well, if you have that sort of summer, you should let this bread rise in the springhouse or down in your basement.

Slow Bread

The night before baking, put 1/8 to 1/4 tsp. yeast (depending on how cold it is) in a quarter-cup of lukewarm water. Stir 2 T. salt into another half-cup of water.

Put twelve cups flour in a bowl. For all my bread these days, I use coarse, freshly ground spelt flour.

When the yeast is dissolved, add it and the salt to the flour. Add a couple of cups of water, and stir well. Keep adding water -- a bit at a time -- until all the flour is moistened. I would give you better measurements, but the amount of water you need will vary widely depending on your weather and the flour you've got. It should be soft but still bouncy. Knead the dough well, form it into a smooth ball, and place it in a large oiled bowl to rise in a cool place. Cover it with tea towels.

In the morning, it should be risen and bubbly. Knead it gently back into a taut ball, and leave it to rise again, still in a cool place. When it has risen high and its top has started to look not taut, but puckered, you can either knead it down and let it rise once more in the bowl, or shape it into loaves.

To shape the loaves, cut the dough in two. Shape each half into a taut ball, and let it rest in the bowl or a floured tabletop for ten minutes or so, to the give the gluten a chance to relax again. Oil a large baking sheet or two loaf pans. Take each ball of dough and tuck two opposite sides down and under, keeping the top of the loaf smooth and taut while letting it elongate. Place the shaped loaves in your pans or on the baking sheet and let them rise again.

When they are not quite doubled in volume (not height), still taut and springy, preheat the oven to 450. Place the loaves in the oven and turn it down to 350. Bake until they are well browned and hollow-sounding when tapped on the bottom, about one hour.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Henna, Paprika, and Hair: An Aside

This is not particularly relevant to food, but it concerns the color of my hair, which used to be the direct inspiration for the title of this blog. I'm sorry to go on a long ramble about a topic as trivial as my hair. Skip it unless you're genuinely curious about the vanities of a paprikahead.

For many years, I kept my hair a crimson color with the aid of henna (and paprika, for fun). Henna, it seemed, was made for my hair -- it turned my light brown locks a shimmery, glossy scarlet. Almost the color of blood, as you can see by direct comparison in this photo. Pure fun.

But then I grew uneasy at the thought that I was daily deceiving the world into thinking me a redhead. And I grew uneasy with the fiery brilliance, which was too bold for either my pale eyebrows or my usual mood. I also wanted to regrow my hair the way it used to be, having gotten tired of trying to be hip, ironic, coy, or anything other than the sober Pre-Raphaelite I am.

Ah, the way things used to be. I never seriously cut my hair before I was nineteen, when it flounced about my hips in fluffy waves of almost-brown. College, however, was not good for my hair. I blame the cafeteria diet and a double major in mathematics and English for the way my hair thinned after my freshman year.

One day I put it in a ponytail, braided the ponytail, and chopped it off. (I kept the braid in a drawer until some perfect purpose occurred to me, like making creepy braided jewelry of my own hair. But the house caught on fire before I ever did something with it). I felt a little dizzy at first, without my hair. But it made a nice bouncy bob, and a few months later I started coloring it red. Its length varied a little, according to my moods and boyfriends, but it never went much past shoulder-length.

Then, the December before last, I grew really impatient with my roots. The half-red thing was lame, but I didn't want to just chop off my hair. So, for the first (and, I expect, last) time in my life, I set foot in a hairdresser's shop. He was hesitant to mess with henna, which can interact with salon chemicals in funny ways. But, bless his heart, he was willing to try, and so he bleached out the red part and put in some brownish color more like my own.

It was some relief for a while, but after six months or so, the brownish dye faded, revealing the persistent orange-red of bleached henna underneath. In addition to failing to remove the henna, the bleach had destroyed my hair, leaving the ends a brittle, tangled mess. Grrr. If I had more patience and less pride, my hair would be healthier and longer right now, and I'd have kept my salon virginity.

These days, I occasionally put golden-brown henna in the ends of my hair to mitigate their bleach-orange color. But mostly, I just wait. Soon there will be no traces of my paprika color anymore, and I will have to content myself with being only a figurative paprikahead.

That's fine, because at twenty-five, my hair is now just a few vertebrae shy of my waist, and as thick as it was at sixteen. The thickness I blame on a real food diet that includes two pastured eggs for breakfast, cod liver oil, and at least a pint of raw milk every day. Or maybe it's just because I sleep at night instead of doing problem sets and editing the lit mag? Whatever it is, I'll keep doing it, Hair, if you promise to hurry up and grow. I have to catch up with Laura Ingalls and the Pre-Raphaelite contingent!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A House That Stands on Chicken Feet

I had a pop-up book when I was young, with terrible witches and misers and mysterious cats popping out all over. The text was a translation of the start of a Pushkin poem, and I can still recite most of it by heart. My favorite page featured the pop-up house of Baba Yaga, with dark pop-up pines leaning in close.

On chicken feet there stands a cottage,
No doors, no windows, bare and lone.
Upon the sands of hidden pathways
Lie tracks of creatures unbeknown.

Unbeknown? Whatever it takes to make it scan in English.

Oh, it was magical. The book didn't go into any more detail about the hut; I had no idea it was a central part of the Baba Yaga lore. It was just a chilling gratuitous puzzle, and I studied those pop-up feet intently.

This is all to say that chicken feet are witchy. They are also extremely practical, adding lots of velvety density to your chicken stock. But oh! The Quetzalcoatl reptilian skin! The toenails! Such things call for cauldrons, and upon such things my house should stand.

Well, my house does stand on chicken feet. Because my house stands on cookery (as well as books and love), and chicken stock is a firm foundation for my cookery (with a few other things, like good butter), and the stock made from chicken feet is a strong stock, indeed.

Chicken Stock from Feet

Put at least a pound of chicken feet in a large pot. Fill with water to cover. Add an onion, peeled and cut in half, a carrot, trimmed, and a stalk of celery, trimmed. Bring to a simmer and turn the heat to the lowest possible flame, so the feet just steep. Let them steep for at least four or five hours, or as long as twelve (they can cook that long if the heat is very gentle).

Strain through a colander. You can freeze the stock or keep it for a week in the fridge. Use it for everything -- even plain brown rice cooked in stock suddenly becomes attention-worthy.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Handful of Culinary Delights, in Pictures

A few recent photos of contented cooking and eating. Chortles in the middle of a productive purr, not noteworthy enough for their own posts.

Above is a good representation of the "firm, springy wads of gluten" you'll encounter in my sponge bread recipe. Does this picture warm your heart? It makes me so happy.

I gave into my dream-induced scallop craving. My most recent cooking dream: roasting strawberries and blackberries to put on ice cream.

This is what it looks like to be six and have a spring picnic.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Q & A with Paprikahead: Large Beans


I have these big white beans - what are they? Why have they split into two big halves that are toooo scary? What should I do to these tooo scary beans that have split into two? I want to eat them today! I bet they will cook fast because these tooooo big beans have been sitting on the stove for two days! HELP!!!

Yours Truly,

Big Fluffy Hamster in San Francisco

Dear Big Fluffy Hamster,

While I can't with any certainty identify your large beans, I can tell you something about the general properties of large beans. Beans often split as they soak; no problem there. The bad news is that even after a two-day soak they may still take a long time to cook, simply because they are so very large. Be patient, and you will be rewarded with a large creamy mouthful of beans.

Possibilities: you could have white runner beans (the white variety of scarlet runner beans). You could have gigantes, large white Greek beans. You could have some sort of big lima bean. Send me a picture?

All the best,