Sunday, April 12, 2015

Easy French Bread

I don't know why I've put off making French bread for so long - I guess I'm just too much of a whole-grain purist, and you just can't make a good loaf of French bread with whole grains (at least I assume so - I guess I haven't tried it yet!) But I found myself buying frozen garlic bread one too many times in the grocery store and feeling horribly guilty for all of the nasty chemicals I was feeding my children. So I finally gave in and pulled out my trusty old Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book and looked up French Bread.

The ingredient list was simple - flour, yeast, salt, and water (with an eggwash for that classic crust - I'm sure you could skip that if you needed to go egg-free). So I pulled out my organic white flour and went to work. I made one recipe by the book, and a second right away skipping some of the more complicated steps. They both turned out about the same, so here's my "cheater" easy version:

Easy French Bread
makes 2 loaves
5 cups flour
1 1/2 Tbsp yeast
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 cups warm water
Mix all together (in a mixer or by hand) and knead until smooth and elastic. Let rise for about an hour (I use my seedling grow mat, and it rises like a dream!) After dough has risen, roll out into a 15x10 inch rectangle and roll up, starting from a long side:
Place seam-side down on a baking sheet, cover with a towel, and let rise for another 45 minutes. Then, using a sharp knife, slice each loaf 4 or 5 times diagonally across the top. For an extra-crispy crust, make an egg wash (use a fork to beat one egg (I use a whole egg; many recipes call for just the white, but I don't bother separating it - this is my "cheater" recipe, remember) and brush across the top of each loaf. I like to use a silicone barbecue brush):
Bake in a preheated 365 degree oven for 40-45 minutes, or until bread sounds hollow when you tap the top with your finger. Immediately move to a wire rack to cool.
To make garlic bread, slice lengthwise and brush with garlic butter (crush garlic and mix with melted butter - I use about two cloves per 1/2 stick of butter). Bake about 10 minutes at 400 degrees, or until edges begin to brown.

Early Spring Harvest

It's April in northern Wisconsin. While the snow is gone, it's not nearly time to start planting things out in the garden yet (I'm in zone 3b, which is technically less amenable to gardening than Anchorage, Alaska. Snowstorms in April - or even May - are not uncommon here). But if you know what to look for, there are a few things out there ready to be eaten.

The first, and most surprising to me, is winter cress. I had never even heard of it until I read Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and now I see this "weed" growing everywhere in my yard! It loves recently disturbed ground, which means I've been weeding it out of my gardens for years. Here's a sample of what it looks like in the yard right now:
It's a perennial member of the mustard family, and apparently (according to Gibbons, anyway) long used by Italian housewives. He says that these plants "have an extraordinary ability to grow vigorously during any warm spell in winter and from them the forager can often gather fresh salad material or boiling greens in midwinter if the ground is free of snow. However, it is in late February and early March (make that late March and early April in Wisconsin) that winter cress becomes best and most abundant. It forms dense, bright green clusters before any other green thing shows." But, "in April (May here) the plant puts up a seed stalk which eventually reaches from one to two feet high and bears many bright yellow flowers, about a quarter inch across and evenly spaced along the stem. . . . To be edible, the leaves of winter cress must be gathered early, while the weather is still cold. Those who complain of the bitterness of this plant are usually those who gathered it too late in the season. When gathered early enough, winter cress is no more bitter than the best leaf lettuce, and far less so than endive or escarole. As soon as the frosty nights are past, this plant becomes too bitter to eat. Fortunately, by this time, one can select from a number of other wild salads and potherbs."

I assume by "other wild salads" he means spinach and such - which are much to small still to harvest without damaging the plant (and thus harm any future harvests). Here's what my spinach looks like right now:
(This is spinach that volunteered in my garden last fall, after I let another spinach plant go to seed in the heat of the summer (my Grandma Ada's old trick). As you can see, the outer leaves are brown from overwintering, but new leaves are forming in the center.) There are also some really tiny lettuce plants starting up, but definitely nothing harvestable yet.

Since this foraging trip was for the sake of gathering ingredients for soup, I also took the chance to weed out some stinging nettles growing nearby in the garden:
Of course, I was careful to wear gloves when I harvested these so I didn't get stung, but once boiled they are highly nutritious, and apparently work as a soup thickener as well, so I was happy to find them.

I would have loved to have added some chives to the soup, but they're still pretty puny, too:
Instead, I harvested some of my walking onion roots. In the summer and fall I usually harvest only the bulblets on the top (here's a picture from last summer in case you're not familiar with walking onions):
but this early in the season they're barely putting up greens, so I harvested to roots instead:
Paired with some potatoes, carrots, parsley, and garlic from last year, a few jars of chicken stock, salt, pepper, and an nice cheesy white sauce, and we had a nice, hearty pot of soup for lunch. A good start to a new year's harvesting!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Raise Bread on a Seedling Mat

In another of my Captain Obvious moments, I realized this afternoon that the seedling heat mat I purchased this spring would be the perfect tool to help my bread rise. We generally keep our house at around 65 degrees, which can really slow yeast growth. The heat mat, however, is designed to raise the temperature about 10 degrees - perfect for bread!

I tried it this afternoon, and it worked beautifully!

(As always, if you click on the blue affiliate link in this post it will take you to the product description on I will receive a small reimbursement for each referral.)

Easy Egg-Free Homemade Maple-Sweetened Chocolate Pudding

This is one of those recipes that took me an embarrassingly long time to discover. I've been thinking there must be an easy way to make chocolate pudding from scratch, but I was never motivated enough to search for one (and you never know if recipes you find online will really work - unless of course they have pictures of adorable children obviously enjoying a sample!)

Most pudding recipes I've seen include eggs, which can be tricky to cook correctly without them hardening (think hard-boiled egg chunks in your pudding - yuck!). This version is so simple, my daughter could make it herself.

I found this recipe in The Boxcar Children Cookbook, which my nine-year-old daughter checked out from the library yesterday. Of course, I had to make a few changes to make it healthier (you know me!) but it still turned out great - 5 out of 5 thumbs up! I also had to double the original recipe (4 servings for 5 children was never going to work!)
Easy Homemade Chocolate Pudding
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup sweetener of choice (I like maple syrup, but honey or sucanat work, too - they do affect the taste slightly, though)
1/4 cup cornstarch (I will be trying arrowroot, but haven't yet - I'll keep you posted)
4 cups milk
Mix dry ingredients in a small saucepan. Add liquid ingredients and heat to boiling, stirring constantly. Boil one minute, then remove from heat.
Serve hot or cold. Keep refrigerated once cool.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Homegrown Mushrooms!

Look what I found this morning -
Beautiful white oyster mushrooms growing on the kit I bought online this winter! (Here's the link to the kit I bought.)

I kind of feel like this should be a story of how NOT to grow mushrooms from a kit - I neglected it a lot, and it still turned out OK. So don't be afraid to try it, it's really pretty foolproof!

First off, it took me more than a week just to get the kit out of the box it was shipped in (it's been rather busy around here, to say the least), and so the mycelium (mushroom "roots" - white yogurt-y looking growth) had already colonized most of the straw. I prepped the bag according to the directions, and then set it on a shelf while I focused on getting the house ready for Easter houseguests.

I ignored it completely all weekend, and when I remembered it on Tuesday (today) I found fully-developed mushrooms, ready to harvest! It's a good thing I remembered today, because mushrooms only last a day or two before they're spoiled.

Now to decide which recipe to make with them for lunch today - I'm thinking Broiled Bacon, Mushrooms, and Spinach from The Nourished Kitchen cookbook. Mmmmm . . . is it lunchtime yet?