Is your pesto the best-o?

Remember when Phoebe Buffay asks that of Monica’s sous chef Tim in Friends? Tim answers that he doesn’t know if it’s the best-o but it’s pretty good-o.

I love Friends. I also love my own weird version of pesto, about two times a year, and then I’m done.

Pesto is a weird choice for me.  I’m not crazy about garlic and I hate pine nuts, which I understand are in a lot of traditional pesto recipes.  Not only do I not care for things that taste like the rosin I used to put on my violin bow (yes, I “played” violin, but never well, and I was only 11 at the time and can be forgiven for the noises I produced, which are probably still out there orbiting the planet, frightening people), but I hate the idea that pine nuts can actually alter the way you taste food.  Permanently. I read that somewhere. Even if it wasn’t true, I’m taking no chances.

So here’s my take on the summertime, kelly green treat.  I love this with toasted sourdough baguette or just a chunk pulled from the loaf and not toasted.

Non-Traditional Pesto

1/3 cup olive oil (I’m really not picky and grab cheap brands)

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese (not the type that comes already grated – it’s missing something)

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil (does anything smell more wonderful?)

1/2 teaspoon garlic salt

1/2 teaspoon salt (optional; my last batch was a little too salty and parmesan is also salty)

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (fresh grated is nice but not mandatory)

Throw everything into a blender and pulse until it’s nicely combined.  Eventually the oil will come back out of the mix, but olive oil by itself with fresh cracked black pepper makes a nice dipping sauce for bread, so not really a problem.  Plus you can always just scoop the oil back in with the other ingredients with the bread.  Messy and easy for a summer lunch with maybe leftover barbecued chicken or steak, and maybe a bunch of green grapes.

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Victorian Milk Bread

Sometimes a yeast dough kneads like a bowling ball and sits there uncooperative all the way through the suggested rises, its back to you like a cat that’s sulking.

Very rarely have I had a yeast bread fail. I don’t think this is so much my prowess as a baker as it is that yeast bread is pretty forgiving. I’ve forgotten to add ingredients from butter to eggs to the rest of the liquid and added them in as late as when I’m kneading on the board and thinking This dough feels strange….

It would be nice if recipes noted when the bread is one of those come-from-behind late bloomers. This one sat sullen in the favorite brown bread bowl. It sat sullen through its second rise, too, looking so unhappy I left it for more than 90 minutes when the usual Northern Nevada 5000 feet above sea level rise is 45, 60 minutes at max.

Outside the day was sunny, but only 48 degrees. This is a very strange winter that doesn’t seem to want to go away, and the humidity was 40 percent. I’m used to summer humidity of 15 or so. It was 66 degrees in the house, and apparently the bread dough didn’t like that, either.

Eventually I got tired of waiting for it and abused it into the S-shape the cookbook calls for, then preheated the oven to 400 and let the bread rise in the pan on the stove top. At which point it rose nicely and in about 45 minutes.

This was a bread that – as some do – caused my husband to comment that most breads are just bread, homemade or not. Which is all I was looking for – bread – but still, when you fight with something for half a day, you expect a payout.

Which I got. We ended up finishing most of the loaf because when it was cold it was very good. I never tried toasting it, but the bread held together well, without crumbling, and probably would be great toasted. It had a nice, tight crumb and a crispy crust. I tried to forget the wash that goes on it and ended up brushing it on minutes after it went into to the oven.

The egg wash made for a crispy crust but was a little bland. Next time I’ll either try salt in the wash or once the bread is out of the pan and on a rack, brush it with salted butter.

The recipe comes from Ultimate Bread, Eric Treuille & Ursula Ferrigno, 1998.

2 teaspoons active dry yeast (not rapid rise)

1 teaspoon sugar

1 ¼ cups lukewarm milk

3 ½ cups unbleached flour

1 ½ teaspoons salt

Egg glaze – 1 egg and 1 tablespoon milk

Start by sprinkling the yeast and the sugar over ½ cup of the lukewarm milk in a small bowl. Allow to sit for 5 minutes, then stir to dissolve the yeast completely.

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The recipe calls for all the flour and salt in a large bowl. I scooped 2 ½ cups of the flour into the bowl and mixed in all the salt, holding out 1 cup of the flour because of the dry desert.

Make a well in the flour and pour in the milk, sugar and yeast mixture. Draw flour in from the sides of the bowl as you stir, creating a sticky dough. I ended up using all of the remaining milk and not all of the remaining flour, even with 40 percent humidity for the day.

The dough needs to be cohesive enough it can be lifted from the bowl while leaving some sticky bits behind, but not so dry it’s flaking off flour and pieces of itself. It’s better to under flour than to get carried away – you can always add more flour; you can’t add less.

Move the dough to a dry, floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. I actually came closer to kneading for the full 10 minutes than I usually do because it was such a rock-hard dough.

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Place the dough in a clean bowl and cover with a dish towel. Allow to rise for 45 minutes, unless your bread behaves like mine. Then keep checking on it and giving it pep talks until it grudgingly rises. The photo shows the unwilling dough after 50 minutes.

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Once the dough is risen, punch it down and leave it to rise a second time. This bread really benefited from being in the sun on my kitchen table, and even more so when it moved to the top of the preheating oven. If you discover your bread is sluggish, try putting the bowl on the top of stove while the oven preheats. Or instead of the 2 teaspoons of yeast, maybe start with 1 tablespoon of yeast (the equivalent of 3 teaspoons).

After the second rise, punch the dough down gently and shape into a roll, then twist into an S-shape. I just used my standard sized light nonstick bread pan and oiled it gently. Nonstick is a nice idea and sometimes it even works. No reason not to help it out a little. Let the bread rise or proof in the pan covered with a tea towel until risen an inch over the top of the pan.

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The authors suggest adding a little sugar to a milk glaze before applying, but this is an egg glaze with milk in it. Seems like the top would brown very quickly if both milk sugar and actual sugar were in the glaze. Even without the sugar I covered my bread at about 30 minutes, just laying a piece of foil across the top.

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When I try the bread again, I may try two small loves, free form, and brush one with the egg glaze with sugar added, and the other with the egg glaze and salt added. Or make three micro loaves and brush the third with salted butter once it’s out of the oven.

Or just try the recipe three more times, one wash for each. It turned out a tasty loaf that would make good sandwiches – no reason not to experiment.

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Best Cheddar Cheese Bread – Honest

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Spring can come and go in a day in the desert.  This year it’s lasting.  60s one day, 40s the next.  Sun one day, freezing wind the next day, snow after that.  I’m ready for summer, but I can’t deny this is a beautiful year. And just about perfect weather for making bread.

 The Best Cheddar Cheese Bread in the World

No exaggeration.  Even people who look at homemade bread as “Yeah, it’s bread…” become converts after trying this bread.  It’s simple, and uses four ingredients, plus water.

I made this Friday night, to take to a gathering of writers where our hostess made six or seven different soups.  Everything was warm and friendly and delicious.  This bread is a welcome addition to breakfast (with bacon!) or afternoon snack (tart apples set it off nicely) or with a soup or stew, or any meat course at dinner. And it’s easy!

I first made this in college.  As a listless, uninterested student who frequently stayed home and baked and read novels rather than attending class (an awful lot of the teachers read out of the book – I was convinced I could do that on my own), I had time to bake.

In college my roommate and I moved into the 8plex across the street from the university as soon as it was built.  Four apartments upstairs, four down.  We chose downstairs, one of the two two-bedroom units, and because we didn’t know Reno isn’t the most social town and that we were being strange, we greeted everyone who moved in.  So we knew Leslie and her boyfriend upstairs and their two redheaded children and their big, black, we-don’t-have-a-dog-we-can’t-have-a-dog-in-this-building Labrador.  We met Ramana when he moved in, John and Barbara when they moved in and didn’t talk to anyone because, we thought – correctly, as it turned out – they were dealers.  We met Valerie who decorated with big butterflies and clearly didn’t own a kitten in the no-pets building, and Ray, who didn’t have parrots.  And we all began partying together, despite being very different people.

And I learned to make bread.  This cheese bread was the second I ever attempted and I’ve been making it ever since.  The recipe only started changing the last couple years, when Rick and I moved into the North Valleys.  At 5000+ feet, in very arid desert, the directions are a little different from what I did before, and from whatever was originally called for in a recipe I lost track of years ago.

Ingredients

1 envelope active dry yeast (not rapid rise) or 2 ¼ teaspoons or one nice yeast scoop’s worth

1 ¾ cups very warm water ( ¼ cup + 1 ½ cups)

2 ½ teaspoons salt (I love sea salt for its graininess/size)

4-5 cups unbleached flour

2 cups sharp cheddar, grated (extra sharp cheddar is nice too – I’m very fond of Tillamook)

Vegetable or canola oil to grease the pans and the bowl

Makes one loaf, standard size loaf pan, and one free form round loaf

Into ¼ of the 1 ¾ cups of water in the single bowl needed for this recipe, add 1 envelope instant (not rapid rise) yeast.  If you prefer your yeast in a jar or package, this is the equivalent of 2 ¼ teaspoons.

Sprinkle the yeast over the flour and let sit a couple minutes while you draw your remaining 1 ½ cups of warm water and 2 ½ teaspoons of salt.  I love sea salt, for its slightly larger crystals, but really any salt will do, including those little packets Wendy’s gives out, which I hoard against those weird times that I run out of salt.  (Salt’s one of those things I never expect to run out of.  Vanilla, on the other hand, disappears instantly.)

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Add the salt to the yeast and water when the yeast is mostly or totally dissolved, and stir, then stir in the remaining warm water.  From here I usually add 3 to 3 ½ cups of the flour, rarely more unless it’s pouring rain outside.  This is one of those times our dry, very low humidity desert makes a difference – it’s really easy to add too much flour to yeast doughs.  To me yeast doughs seem very forgiving – you could add more water, but eventually the mix will be off between flour, yeast, salt and water.  Easier to add the flour slowly and judiciously.

That said, the first 3 cups I just dump in and start stirring.  From there I add a handful at a time from the measuring cup (often saying aloud to passing cats or anyone listening which cup of flour I’m on so I don’t lose count).  As soon as the dough is cohesive enough to be lifted out, but still showing large areas of very wet dough (see photo) I use flour already measured in the cup on my pastry board and lift the dough onto it.

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Note

At this point it’s a good idea to soak the bowl you’re using if you’re going to use it for the rising.  This bread rises in an oiled bowl and if you might not want to stop and wash the bowl and your fingers after all that nice kneading.  If the bowl hasn’t been soaking, scrubbing out the instantly dried sticky dough is irritating and takes longer than I want to spend.  If the bowl’s been soaking in very warm water, and is washed and rinsed in the same, the dough has a lovely warm cradle to start rising in.  Some breads benefit from a long slow rise to develop taste – this one tastes just fine with a normal rise, so warming it is just pleasant, neither necessary nor inadvisable.

Dough rises three times.  The first and second in the oiled bowl, covered with cling wrap or a clean tea towel.  When you put the dough in the bowl, turn it so all sides are lightly covered with the oil.  Both rises take roughly 45 minutes in my high desert to probably 90 minutes at lower and/or damper elevations.  After the first rise, lightly flour your fingers and gently press he dough back down, recover and let rise the second time.

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After the second rise, turn the dough out on a floured surface and knead in your grated cheddar cheese.  I like a coarse grating, so the pieces are wide and more than an inch long. I’m probably using about 8 ounces of cheese, or 2 cups or so.  It’s not an exact measurement and not all of the cheese gets kneaded in every time.

Try not to deflate the dough overly before starting to knead in the cheese.  Flatten the dough into a rough circle, sprinkle on the cheese, and start gently kneading until it’s incorporated.  It’s better to have all the cheese within the dough, not showing on the surface, or that cheese will burn or simply leak out and away during baking.  For that reason too I don’t generally sprinkle any on top of the bred.

Separate the dough into two unequal parts.  Two-thirds of the dough is used to free form one loaf for the greased or nonstick bread pan. The smaller piece is formed into a small, round loaf and does nicely in a greased glass pie pan.  Cover with a clean tea towel and allow to rise for another 45 to 60 minutes while the oven preheats to 450.

Bake both loaves for 20 minutes, then remove the smaller loaf, reduce the oven temperature to 350, and bake for another 5 to 10 minutes.  Keep an eye on it – it can quickly overcook.  If either bread becomes too dark during baking, just lay a piece of foil over top – it doesn’t have to be fitted on or anything.  Remove breads from pan and flick or tap the bottoms – they should sound hollow.  Let cool before slicing or they’ll squish and taste cloyingly wet.

Happy baking!

How much flour?                                                                                                                                            In the past I used more flour than I needed to.  Originally from wherever I learned this recipe, it called for 4 to 5 cups of flour.  Now I use 4 in winter and sometimes – but not always – 4 in summer.

Then about two years ago I started leaving just the slightest stickiness to the bread dough.  It’s very pliable, pulls out nicely, relaxes back into itself, and just the tiniest bit is sticky on my fingers.  This is a hearty bread, not light as a feather, but the taste and texture both improved when I stopped kneading in bread just before it would stop accepting more flour.

Note                                                                                                                                                        Sometimes when I’m kneading the dough I absolutely don’t care that it’s sticking to my fingers, sometimes enough to make small rolls with if I were insane enough to want to stop and do that.  Other times I can’t stand having it sticking to me.  If it starts to bother you while you’re kneading, let the dough rest while you wash your hands off, dry them thoroughly (so you’re not adding more water to the dough) and re-flour your hands and restart your kneading.  Yeast bread is far more forgiving that most people think.  It won’t care.

Note on kneading                                                                                                                                    Bread machines apparently have different functions.  I’ve never used one but I think they can be used for nothing more than the kneading.  Alternately, I have a KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook and could let it patiently knead the dough for 10 minutes if so inclined.

I’m not so inclined.  Kneading by hand puts me in touch with the dough.  I can feel how warm it is, how sticky or dry (dry would be bad – it’s impossible to take the flour out again and I don’t think adding liquid would work because again, it changes the ratio of ingredients).  I can feel how well the dough responds, how bouncy it is, how much life.  I’m very impatient in just about everything, so I’ve learned over the years that when recipes say “Knead for 10 minutes,” it’s safe in most instances to knead for four and go on your merry way.  This bread I usually give 4 to 6 minutes depending on how it feels and how I feel and I have never had this bread fail.

One last note on kneading                                                                                                                Because I write – a lot – every day, my hands from handwriting and keyboarding are sore and tired.  Probably a doctor would give me a diagnosis of some dreadful sounding syndrome that really means I just use them way, way too much. Pressure helps, warmth does too, and though mostly my hands wish I’d just stop using them and leave them alone?  Kneading feels glorious.  The warmth of the dough, the repetitive movement, the slow stretching and scrunching and folding under my fingers can make a bad hand day improve exponentially.  Absolutely can’t guarantee anyone else will have that reaction, but if you do have hand pain, explained or otherwise, give kneading a go – you might be pleasantly surprised. Plus though it might be tiring at first, all those farm wives in old pictures had nicely developed arms and shoulders and they didn’t have bread machines.  Just a thought.

At altitude this takes 45-60 minutes to rise, not 90.  Even in dead of winter as long as there’s sun (or indoor heating…) and in summer?  Definitely.

Strangely, I only have one not-so-good photo of the finished small loaf and none of the pan loaf. Guess I’ll just have to make it again…

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