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High Desert Bakery

A virtual bakery

Floury Baps

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Floury baps evolved over time for me.  There are so many recipes to make and so many variations on the same item – like the baps – there has to be something special to make me go back and try something a second time.

The first time I made baps I used a recipe from one of my favorite bread books.  Despite that, it didn’t turn out to be my favorite recipe for them.  They were dry and too floury – kind of grainy, definitely blah.

But I really wanted them to turn out.  I wanted to split them in half and load in a fried egg and some bacon and despite the similarity to certain fast food breakfast treats, this actually turned out when I used the second recipe – from Ultimate Bread by Eric Treuille and Ursula Ferrigno (1998, a DK Publishing Book).  My variations are minor, meant to reflect the dryness of the desert and the speeded-up rising and baking times of 5000 feet.

The second time I tried these was about a week into May. The Sierra still wore a considerable amount of snow.  Which wouldn’t be noteworthy, except this past Monday the foothills at the end of my street were covered once again in snow.  On June 12. Today the North Valleys will hit 88 degrees.

I love my desert.

As for the baps, apparently they’re meant to be slathered in jam, or opened and filled with cream.  I can see filling them with clotted or whipped cream and fresh, lightly sugared berries, too, though I haven’t tried that yet.

But the fried egg and bacon version was excellent.  So was baking them with grated cheddar inside.  So was loading one with a slice of cooked sausage (the kind that comes in a roll, ready to slice and cook) and a little cheese.

Baps aren’t all that sweet, so I’m not sure why they couldn’t be stuffed with a mix of lentils, corn and salsa, or be used as a sandwich wrap, or be filled with sliced black olives and tomatoes and sprinkled with oregano, other than the fact that might be messy as the filling spills back out.

¾ cup warm water

¾ cup room temperature milk + more for glaze

2 teaspoons active dry yeast (not rapid rise)

1 teaspoon sugar

3 ½ cups unbleached flour

1 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt

Combine the milk and water in a measuring cup.  Pour one half of the liquid into a smaller bowl.  Sprinkle yeast and sugar over top and let stand for 5 minutes.

Mix 2 ½ cups of the flour and all the salt in a large bowl.  Form a well in the center and pour in the mixed liquid, sugar and yeast.  Draw in as much flour as necessary to form a sticky dough.  Stir in remaining liquid as needed.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board.  I use part of the reserved 1 cup flour for dusting the board and kneading into the bread.  When I’m kneading and the dough stops pulling the flour from the board and my hands, it’s time to slow down adding more.  I’ve found while baking yeast breads in the desert that my best loaves come about from doughs that still cling just a little damply to my hands.  Still the soft rounded look of the dough, and they’re not leaving sticky patches or pulling off, but just slightly tacky or damp.

Knead the dough for 5-10 minutes, as long as it feels elastic and smooth.

Leave the dough in a clean bowl covered with a clean dish towel.  Allow to rise in a warm place until doubled, roughly 45 minutes at 5000 feet.

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When the dough has risen, punch it down and allow it to rest on the board for 10 minutes, then separate into 8 pieces.  Gently form into soft ovals and flatten slightly with your hand as you put them on a greased or parchment-lined cookie sheet.

Brush with milk and give each a heavy sifting of flour.  Allow to rise, uncovered, for 30 to 45 minutes or until doubled in size.  Mine took a really long time to rise, but that was subjective and because I forgot them – I was making devil’s food cupcakes and an olive thyme baguette at the same time.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Dust with flour again, then bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly golden.  When first out of the oven, cover the baps on the tray with a clean dish towel for 10 minutes.  Then remove towel and move baps to a wire rack.

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Olive Thyme Baguette

I could live on bread and cheese.  With apples and grapes thrown in. During the summer, the hottest weather (my favorite time of year, the hotter the better) that’s what I eat a lot of the time – some kind of bread, cheese sometimes, grapes and apples, water with ice and maybe some lemon.  Sourdoughs are my favorite breads, but I’m still learning how to make an actually sour sourdough (I’ve used all kinds of starters and made good breads – they’re just not sour).

Several years ago I found a recipe for an olive bread that was made in a ring shape and may or may not have had thyme in it.  I can’t remember.  What I do remember is that it sounded heavenly and I made it several times before giving up.  The bread refused to rise.  Sometimes it refused to cook.  There’s something impressive about dough that refuses to finish in an over that’s over 400 degrees – how can it just refuse to bake? How is that even possible?

When I got tired of playing with the recipe and was still longing for something like it, I played around and developed this one.  It’s never failed me and offers up a substitution of a rosemary bread without olives if you choose.  The rosemary bread is good toasted, or not toasted and with butter, or without butter but with cheese.  The olive bread is fantastic just the way it is.

2 cups all purpose flour + ½ cup reserved

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 package yeast (not rapid rise)

1 cup very warm water

1 cup chopped or sliced Kalamata olives, drained (black olives are also good)

Several sprigs of fresh thyme

In a large bowl, combine 2 cups flour with sugar, salt and yeast.  Mix together and make a well in the center.

Stir in the cup of warm water, mixing with a wooden spoon until the dough leaves the sides of the bowl and clings to itself in a sticky loaf.

Turn out onto a floured board – I use the reserved flour to flour the board in order to measure how much flour I’m adding to the dough.  Knead for 5 to 10 minutes, depending on how the dough feels, and add flour by judicious handfuls if the dough is too sticky.  Dough should be just damp enough to stick to the fingers but go back to itself rather than sticking in chunks to your hands.  If it seems to be getting to dry, just keep kneading on one of the less floury sections of board – it should absorb the extra flour and become supple and smooth again.

Place dough in a clean, greased bowl and spin it so all sides are greased.  Cover with a clean dish towel or plastic wrap and leave to rise in a warm place.  First rise will take approximately 45 minutes at high altitude.

When dough is doubled in size, move it to a scraped and re-floured board and gently punch it down.  Let rest for 10 minutes.

Shape the dough into an oval, patting it to about 3/4 –inch thickness with your fingers.  Cover the surface with the chopped olives the way you’d cover dough for cinnamon buns.  Snip the thyme leaves or pull them from the stems, dropping them along the olives.

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Roll up to form a long baguette, tucking the ends under.  This can rise on a baguette pan, which are usually perforated to allow heat to get through at all angles and create a lovely crunchy crust, or on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, preferably without sides.  Allow to rise until double.

Bake at 425 25 to 30 minutes.  Check the loaf at 20 minutes and cover if it’s browning too fast.  Spraying the loaf or the oven with water when the loaf first goes in will create a crispier crust (avoid the lightbulb at all costs – I once made one explode doing this and had to start all over after cooling the oven and cleaning out all the broken glass).  Or brush the loaf with a whipped egg white.

The rosemary alternative substitutes finely chopped rosemary leaves for thyme and leaves out the olives.  It bakes the same, though almost always has an egg white glaze and some rosemary leaves (or are they called needles?) decoratively arranged.  The rosemary version is wonderful with barbecued or lemon-stuffed chicken.

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Blackberry — and a little sage — Fruit Tarts

My favorite farmer’s market opened last Saturday, first one of the year, and most of the city seemed to be there when I finally got there at 10:30.  I’m not sure what the allure is, because I don’t eat a lot of vegetables, or buy organic honey or homemade soaps (I make my own soap).  But there’s something about all the white tent tops and the aisle that leads through a sea of people in a parking lot and all those glorious mounds of fruit.  I start craving farmer’s market sometime in February.

Our favorite family farmers were back, with corn and yellow onions and basil and the like, none of which I needed yet.  They’re also my favorites for tomatoes when it’s time for tomatoes (which is another way of saying When it’s time for salsa and When it’s time to just bite into fresh tomatoes.)

This time I was looking for blackberries and apricots, both of which I found, along with strawberries I didn’t even try to resist.

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Back when it was cold and snowing I came up with an idea for blackberry tarts – graham cracker crust, vanilla pastry cream, blackberries dredged in sugar and scented or flavored gently with sage.

What I ended up with was different than what I imagined, but wonderful, once it made its strange trek to the table.

The Graham Cracker Crust

I’ve never made a graham cracker crust before.  It never seemed like there’d be any point – surely the ones made by elves and pressed into an aluminum pan with a plastic cover were more than good enough, right?

Right.  But making my own allowed me to add (toasted almonds, chopped fine) and subtract (all the additional sugar, and any preservatives).  Plus it was fun.  Until the part where I forgot the almonds and had to back up several steps.

I toasted the almonds on Monday.  Then I put them in cupboard so I wouldn’t see them and simply eat them.  I know myself.  I know myself around toasted almonds.

Then Tuesday I made the crusts.  I was 5/6 of the way through pressing them into tart pans when I remembered the almonds.  All the crusts got dumped back in the bowl and I started over.  Which doesn’t sound that troubling, but the crumbs wanted to stick to me, not the pan.

It was so worth it.

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1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs, crushed under a heavy rolling pin*

7 tablespoons salted butter, melted and cooled

½ cup toasted almonds, chopped fine

Mix the crumbs with the butter, stir in the almond pieces, and press the mixture into whatever size tart pan or pans you’re using.  Bake at 375 for 7 minutes.  Set aside to cool.

(*We were completely out of baggies.  It is possible to crush graham crackers inside a folded up piece of parchment paper, but you’re going to have to sweep afterwards.)

The Berries

I live in Northern Nevada.  High desert.  The idea of sage was to celebrate summer and desert.  Not a close encounter with a bunch of tiny ants or to go buy sage from a grocery store.  But that’s what happened.

From what I can tell from reading up on it, culinary sage and sagebrush are two different things anyway.  I didn’t want to poison anyone who ate the tarts, but I had wanted to just go pick some sage.

I didn’t.  I bought it.  And used it sparingly, about 2 long, silvery leaves chopped up in 1 ½ cups of sugar poured over 2 dozen berries.  If it added any flavor whatsoever, I missed it.

The berries I dredged in granulated sugar, separating blackberries from strawberries in separate bowls.  I hoped they’d act like lemons that macerate in sugar for Shaker Lemon Pies.  They kind of did, but the developed crusts of hard sugar and bits stuck to them.  I didn’t want to glaze any of the berries, so I didn’t mind, but I’d hoped they’d be sweetened, hold their shape, and flavor the sugar.

They didn’t do any of that.  Oh, well.  They were still heavenly berries.

The Pastry Cream

I ended up making two recipes of this.  The first used half-and-half and I followed every instruction but it came out grainy and I think the half-and-half was more liquid than when it went into the mix.  The eggs, meanwhile, had almost solidified when whipped with cornstarch.  I have no idea why it didn’t work, but it tasted lovely and I had to throw it out before drinking it all.  I was, at least, positive it would work with the graham cracker crust, since the leftover graham crackers dipped in it were wonderful (I didn’t throw it all out).

The second recipe is a No Muss, No Fuss Pastry Cream from Martha Stewart, and uses whole milk.  I quite like the flavor and it handled really well and set up nicely, but next time I think I’ll try half-and-half instead of milk.

½ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup cornstarch

Pinch of coarse salt

2 cups whole milk

4 large egg yolks

2 tablespoons salted butter (original calls for unsalted)

1 teaspoon vanilla

Whisk together sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium saucepan.  Whisk together milk and egg yolks in a measuring cup.  Add milk mix to pan with the butter.  Cook over medium heat until the mixture comes to a boil.

Boil for one minute.

Remove pan from heat and add the vanilla.  (I was out of vanilla.  I’m always running out of vanilla.  But I had only run out the day before with the first, runny pastry cream attempt.  So I added a teaspoon of water to the vanilla bottle and shook it rigorously.  It worked.)

Strain the cream into a bowl through a fine mesh sieve.  Cover the top of the cream with cling wrap (parchment paper works here, too, if you don’t have cling wrap or wax paper).  Refrigerate anywhere from two hours to two days.

Just before using, whisk pastry cream until smooth.

Putting it all together

I wanted to do everything at once.  So with six tart pans, I made six different tarts.  In the picture below, left to right, top to bottom, they are:

Sage-dredged blackberries on top of cream in which plain blackberries have been mashed;

Plain blackberries atop pastry cream;

Strawberries on top of pastry cream;

Strawberries on top of pastry cream in which plain strawberries have been mashed;

Sage-dredged blackberries on top of pastry cream in which sage-blackberries have been mashed;

Pastry cream over dark chocolate-laced crust and topped with dark chocolate was drizzled.

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We tried them last night.  Rick can take or leave berries – the chocolate was for him.  The hot chocolate hitting the pastry cream meant the design on top lifted off, one of those grace notes I’ve never achieved on purpose.

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I had one with plain blackberries on cream.  And one was sent to work with him for a coworker, who heartily approved the sage-dredged berries on top of blackberry-filled cream.

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Things I’d do different if I Made These Again

There’s so many different things to make and ideas to realize, it’s hard to make something again.  If I did, though, I might try glazing the berries with something other than jelly (I saw that suggested somewhere).  And I’d use the pastry cream recipe above, but try it with half-and-half, and actual vanilla.  The grainy version was creamier and richer, which is probably just the half-and-half.

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In the meantime, it was a great kickoff to summer and the reason why this morning, when a storm was rolling in and it was 55 out and windy and cold, I took a half hour hike I didn’t want to take – just to burn off some of that.

Worth it.  Happy Summer!

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Through my open window…

It’s after midnight. I should be sleeping. I have to get up at 5:00. But through my open window, I can hear coyotes under the almost-full moon.

I’m happy.

Two Lemon Pies, One Rattlesnake

It all started because I had a quart of buttermilk. I don’t even remember what I bought it for, though whatever the main recipe was, it was the second quart purchased for it, because I drank a lot of the first one. When I figured out there would be a lot of buttermilk left over after the recipe got made, I started imagining this lemon and buttermilk pie recipe I’d seen in one of my cookbooks.

That recipe might still be out there. Or I may have remembered it wrong. Or imagined it. But I didn’t find it this time. There was a buttermilk pie recipe in one of the cookbooks, but it had no lemon, and I also had a bag of sunny, bright yellow lemons that were encouraging each other to go bad. The thugs had to be removed and the rest needed to go somewhere good.

Flipping through Martha Stewart’s New Pies and Tarts, 2011, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. I came across a Shaker Citrus Pie.  I’ve made probably half a dozen Shaker lemon pies since finding the recipe in 2013. That summer I wrote about the cookbook How to Build a Better Pie by Millicent Souris, 2012, Quarry Books, for edible Reno-Tahoe COOKS! It’s a bright, summery pie, very light, with a sweet filling and tart lemon topping.

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The first time I made that version, I used the crust from the cookbook, which is step-by-step for anyone nervous about attempting pie crust, and quite good. But my go-to crust for the last 10 years of so is from Baking with Julia, by Dorrie Greenspan and Julia Child, 1996, William Morrow Cookbooks. When I bought Baking with Julia, I stopped using frozen or premade crusts.

With two variations of Shaker lemon pies in open cookbooks right in front of me, and a bunch of lemons and oranges looking beautiful in the sun on the kitchen counter, it was only common sense I was going to make both of them.

And only logical that life would intervene. Which is how I can say for certain that if, once the fruit is cut paper thin and macerating in the rather astounding amounts of sugar, there’s no time to make the pie, the whole thing can be left in the refrigerator for at least four or five days. Mine were on the counter and did just fine, though the day before I finally made the pies, the weather changed and the daily highs shot into the high 70s – refrigerating is probably always the best option.

The Martha Stewart pie is different because it uses a pate brisee for a crust, which is an all-butter crust that’s described as flaky and sturdy at the same time.  It mixes up easily, is light and a slightly sweeter, richer crust than the Shaker pie from the Build a Better Pie book. The pie itself has no brown sugar, unlike the straight lemon version, and uses oranges in addition to lemons, giving the pie a little more sweetness in the fruit. It also mixes some of the macerated citrus in the filling, not just layered on top. My fruit was already many days macerating by the time I read I should julienne some of the pieces, so I just cut them roughly and threw them into the mixer when doing up the eggs and lemon syrup for the filling.

I found the way the citrus pie came together easier than the Build a Better Pie lemon version, because there’s no liquid poured over the carefully arranged citrus fruit. When pouring the liquid over the lemon version, I’ve had the lemons float up and find their own places to sit, which I resent – I’d like them to stay where I put them, and not act like cats and head off wherever they please.

The Build version is tart and explodes with flavor. The egg and brown sugar mixture poured over the lemons is sweet and the lemons tart despite all the sugar, probably because they’re only lemons, no other citrus. I love lemons and my husband doesn’t, so I’ve given away half a dozen of these pies. This one I had a couple slices of and then pulled the fruit off the top.

The fruit layer of the Martha pie is light and both sweet and tart; the oranges make the flavor pop. The filling is very sweet. Once I pulled the citrus off the top and told myself to stop eating it, it was hard to really do so. The crust was shiny with juice that had baked in, like a glazed cookie, if there is such a thing (if there isn’t, there should be).

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I made the pies Thursday May 4, a warm, sunny, still day in Reno’s North Valleys. I’d made both crusts the day before, then ran out of time and forgot to move them from the quick-chill in the freezer to the refrigerator, so I had to wait for them to thaw. Once they were in progress, I spent in between times reworking old short stories in the sunlight at the kitchen table.

This is where the rattlesnake comes in. When both pies were out and cooling, I wanted photographs of them on big rocks overlooking the dry lake and the valley, since the dry lake is full of flood waters and the valley gorgeous. I thought rocks, bright sun, beautiful vista, sunny pies would all complement each other.

Packing the pies into shopping bags because – strangely – I don’t have containers for toiling up steep, rocky foothills with pies in both hands (imagine!), I drove over to one of my favorite places to climb. Backpack on, phone strapped to arm, pies in each hand, I hiked over broken trails where flooding has etched deep channels in what used to be trail, and soft sand has silted into the new stream beds. The path itself is steep at the beginning, and made up of coarse, dry sand over hard dirt, which is slippery (since buying trail running shoes last year, I haven’t slipped once). When that trail makes a 90 degree turn and heads straight up the foothill, it becomes coarse dirt, hard dirt and rocks that have run off in storm after storm. It’s slippery and ankle-turning-dangerous. It’s also very, very steep.

It also doesn’t have big photogenic rocks on top. The rocks are another hike across more up and down and I didn’t have it in me to go the extra distance because by then, I’d met the snake.

When hiking to hike, I’m always looking around to see what animals might be nearby. Hikes are rated on the number of jackrabbits and cottontails, occasional coyotes, crows and magpies and little redheaded zombie birds I see. (Someday I’ll explain the zombie birds. Maybe.)

Today’s hike was awkward (pies), dusty (there were too many ATVs out, by which I mean two), ill-timed (I’d wanted to go early, and now at evening, the sun was angling into a glaring decline). I was watching the ground right in front of me, planning where to step. Usually I take the hard, rocky trail, moving back and forth over tire ruts to the least rocky sections as I go. But with the pies and the pace I was setting and it being my second hike of the day, I cut to the grassier section. The grass isn’t long and the tire ruts head over it, but it’s less rocky and easier.

And occupied. The rattlesnake was six to eight feet from me when I looked up farther than the next few steps and saw it. Diamond-shaped head, rattler design, coiled and shaking its tail at me and making no noise. Rattlesnakes shed their scales at some point, but I have no idea when. Maybe it hadn’t yet reached that level of annoyance, but it was shaking its tail and it was coiled and it was aggressively jutting its head in my direction.

I thought a bunch of stuff, all at exactly the same time:

Oh, bleep.

That’s a rattlesnake.

That’s way too close.

Move.

The non-thoughts, those that didn’t come in cartoon thought bubbles, included my distance from the snake (about six to eight feet, my shadow was nearly touching it and the sun was still high at 5:30), the snake’s probable length (about three feet, which is either as far as it can move in one strike or half what it can move in one strike, and I need to look that up again but am kind of past-tense afraid to).  I also thought that being on rocky, uncertain-footing ground, I couldn’t run or move fast, and that given the time of year, and my lack of knowledge about when snakes reproduce, I wasn’t going to blunder about without looking.

In other words, no leaping sideways and away.

It didn’t lunge. It didn’t strike. I obviously didn’t go any closer. I looked all around me, then gingerly moved to the left, back to the rocky path, where every single rock, stick and shadow now looked like a snake. I made a very large circle around it –

And then stopped to take pictures. I don’t know why. Except that I thought I was far enough away and I was kind of fascinated.

And probably kind of an idiot.

And then I went on to the top of the hill. Where my rocks weren’t.

My rocks weren’t where I left them. This happens to me a lot with anything even remotely geographical. By the time I saw they were another down and up, I gave up. The pies were heavy carried in bags, and the snake encounter left me shaking with adrenaline. I took a few photos from the top of the hill, and then made my very cautious, jumpy way back down, looking for the snake and never seeing it again, which was far less comforting than might be supposed.

This will be my fifth summer tramping about in the hills, and my second rattler encounter. Last year I passed a section in the same path, much farther down, and heard the unmistakable susurrus coming from a sagebrush. I’d heard rattles and dry rasps before and wondered, but the real thing strikes an atavistic response – there is no doubt what you’re hearing. I’ll never again wonder if a jackrabbit preparing to flee or a bunch of quail wanting me to go away are actually a snake. Snakes are snakes. The hackles on the back of my neck know the difference.

Theoretically if you don’t bother them they won’t go out of their way to bother you, which is good, but not all that reassuring. Rattlesnakes are aggressive.

And while I came out of the experience completely unscathed, I note this morning I’m letting the sun come up without my being out there running or hiking. It’s going to take a day or two, and some gratitude that this experience wasn’t any more up close and personal.

As for the pies, there’s only two of us in this household and I’m the only one who likes lemon. They’re delicate pies and ephemeral and I’m not going anywhere today, so no chance to give one away. Instead, I’m pulling the toppings off both and freezing them until I can figure out a good cookie recipe to chop them into.

Hopefully on that day it will be two batches of cookies, no snakes.

 

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These are not my rocks. These are miniature rocks.

 

 

 

 

Simple, Satisfying Calzones

One of my go-to’s for easy dinner. Dress this up with a green salad and a glass of wine, or with a hot vegetable on a cold night. Or take it leftover and cold for a picnic. Or just any time.

Rick and I like totally different things in the realm of food. So I make two of these calzones. They’re big enough most nights for the easy part of dinner we just have half to two-thirds of the calzone and call it good without bothering with salad or dessert or fruit or much of anything.

The calzones take about 1 ¾ hours to 2 hours at 5000 feet, rising faster in summer, slower in winter. The dough is simple and doesn’t require a ton of kneading and if I could find pre-grated Monterey Jack they’d be easier still. The pepperoni in Rick’s I buy in stick form – somehow freshly cut rounds in whatever size I determine seem to have more kick than the paper-thin sliced bagged pepperoni (which isn’t bad either, in a pinch).

I bake them in pie pans for the simple reason that they leak, oozing chewy, hot, melted cheese throughout the pan which I know from unfortunate experience, can set the oven on fire. I also rarely bother to cut slits in the finished calzones before they go in the oven because by then the dough is a little sticky and generally creates its own gaps.

In the photos I rolled out one round and cut it in half so the finished calzones look a little oddly shaped. It was nice for the photo but the dough spent the time I was preparing the stuffing trying to form itself back together. Separation anxiety. It was hard to separate the two pieces. That said I usually roll it into an oval and form it into a long tube. Fancier and probably just as easy would be to roll the dough into a circle and fold it neatly over the filling, creating a half moon, then use a fork to crimp the edges.

Fancy or not, these are simple and tasty.

Dough for 2 Calzones

1 cup very warm water

2 teaspoons active dry yeast (not rapid rise)

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons canola oil (olive oil if you prefer it; I don’t care for it in crusts)

2 ½ to 3 cups all-purpose unbleached flour

Dissolve the yeast in the hot water in a medium to large mixing bowl. Sprinkle the salt over top, add the oil, then add 2 cups of the flour. Stir for form a sticky dough. Stir in enough remaining flour that the dough can be scooped out of the bowl onto a floured board.

Knead for a couple minutes. This dough doesn’t need a ton of working. Add as much reserved flour as necessary so the dough just barely still feels sticky, then scrape out the mixing bowl till it’s fairly clean and return the dough to the bowl to rise, covered, until double. Usually I only use a total of 2 ½ cups flour. Dough is somewhere between the size of a large softball and a small cantaloupe.

The dough should take 45 minutes to just over an hour to rise. Preheat the oven to 425 while preparing the filling.

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Really anything could be filling. My favorite is a cup of cottage cheese, half a cup of shredded skim milk mozzarella, half a cup Monterey Jack, half a cup of pimento-stuffed green olives, chopped or sliced, and a good hearty sprinkle of oregano. Place in the greased pie pan.

Rick’s is a smear of favorite pizza sauce, half a cup of Monterey Jack, half a cup of mozzarella, a very small grating of sharp cheddar (it can easily overpower everything else) and somewhere between half and one cup of sliced pepperoni. Sprinkle on the oregano and seal it up.

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These don’t have to rise. The minute they’re sealed they can go into the oven for 25 minutes at 425. Check at 25 minutes and maybe give them another 2 or 3 minutes. Remove from oven when they’re nicely golden and let cool on a rack for about 5 minutes because they’re now sizzling like fajitas do and the insides are hotter than the sun.

These are kind of a compromise dinner for me when I go into a low carb high protein phase. There’s obviously carbs in the flour, but the insides are as protein packed as can be with the cheese and fat never alarms me like carbs do. Plus the fillings could easily be traded out – salami in one, or pepperoni and pineapple, or ham and green peppers or ham and pineapple, or all cheese (though that seems kind of wanting, somehow). Or even a nicely slow-cooker cooked steak with sautéed yellow onions and a burgundy.

Now I’m dreaming of meat pies. If you come up with a variation on this theme, let me know in the comments – I’d love to try something new.

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Antioxidants, Heart Health, and Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

My husband sometimes makes me look like I have a healthy diet, and that’s saying something, because one of my daydreams is to wake some morning and discover that pizza and cheesecake are health food and leafy greens are, like I’ve always maintained, rabbit food.  Or better yet, green will be recognized as nature’s way of telling us food has gone bad.

When Rick worked construction, before the abrupt and insane rise of residential construction in Nevada and then complete and total fall of it with the last great recession, he ate terrible breakfasts on the run.  He’s not a coffee guy but he’d pick up a Dr. Pepper and a chemical-laden, fat-and-carbohydrate-filled muffin the size of his head and eat it on his drive.  Thinking that I’d like to be with him for a good many years, I scrounged around for alternatives.  Neither of us is ever going to leap out of bed (or even crawl, groaning) early enough to make breakfast.  Not even a semi-healthy cereal, which wouldn’t have lasted him all morning anyway.  Getting him to actually eat oatmeal – as oatmeal – was what I figure asking your average 8-year-old to eat broccoli would be like.

So I dredged up an old family recipe for oatmeal cookies.  Because the family member who loved the recipe liked them big and soft, with crispy edges, they’re made enormous – the entire batter turns out eight or nine cookies. These had always been made with walnuts, so I started fiddling with them to see what I could do to turn them in to a not-hopelessly-bad breakfast alternative to the commercially produced muffin.

Oatmeal is generally considered fairly healthy.  So I started with that.  Then came the welcome news that dark chocolate is a powerful antioxidant and good for high blood pressure, which runs in Rick’s family.  There’s an article in Web MD that explains the whole healthy chocolate thing. 

In addition, walnuts are heart healthy antioxidants so I started throwing walnuts into the mix.  They’re still cookies, but I cut the sugar – which was kind of at egregious levels – by a third.  There’s also two eggs and a stick of butter in the recipe.  I suppose I could go one more step and use half whole wheat flour, but he eats these and I feel pretty good about that.

Since the recession Rick works in a totally different, non-construction job and two big fat cookies aren’t enough to keep going for five and a half hours before lunch.  He’s been eating Jimmy Dean biscuity things that remind me of a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin® which I find a lot like two stones surrounding a couch cushion and some tasteless sausage.  I’m hoping to experiment with actual Jimmy Dean sausage, the kind that comes in the roll and is cut up, and floury Scottish Baps, which are lovely with an egg and some sausage or bacon in them.  The meat could be cooked the night before, the baps made and frozen to be microwaved, or made on Sunday and tossed by Wednesday.  Just, no idea how to get the egg cooked.

Because we’re still not getting up any earlier than we have to.    

The Dough

2 eggs, room temperature

1 stick salted butter, softened (13 seconds in the microwave will do wonders for softening butter)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1/3 cup brown sugar, firmly packed

2/3 cup granulated sugar

1 ½ cups all purpose flour

2 cups old fashioned oatmeal, uncooked 

1 handful walnut pieces

1 handful dark or bittersweet 60% cacao chocolate chips (we love Ghirardelli)

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper, or use nonstick cookie sheets, or grease the sheets.

Break eggs into a separate bowl to avoid getting eggshells into the batter.  Transfer to a mixer bowl with the butter, vanilla, baking soda, salt, brown and white sugars.  The baking soda for some reason doesn’t mix well into the batter and will sit about in little lumps if added with the dry ingredients.  I add the salt at the same time because if I don’t and the soda’s already added, I’ll forget.  Mix well on medium speed, until ingredients are blended.

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Remove the bowl from the mixer and stir in the flour, then the oatmeal.  This is a really, really thick, sticky batter, which will stand a spoon straight up with no problem.  Dig the spoon into the bottom of the bowl, because dry ingredients in this one tend to accumulate there.  Add the nuts and chocolate chips and mix well.

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I make these big, about the size of the palm of my hand when flattened out, and maybe half an inch thick.  The entire batter usually yields about nine cookies.  Bake for 17 minutes at 350, then remove and transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool.

 It‘s possible to feel almost virtuous when having these for a snack.

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Desert blooms on baking day.

 

Of Fake Lakes and Friday Night Pizza

This morning was my first hike of the season in one of my favorite parts of the valley. There’s a circle turnout off the street at the base of it, and the way up is very rocky, very steep, where once I encountered a jackrabbit in the sagebrush I was about five feet away from and we gave each other heart attacks as I blundered up the hill and he blasted out of the brush. From the top of the hill there’s an amazing view of the valley – and the fake lake.

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Right now the lake is full. This winter, the one finally, finally dragging to an end, we got most of our year’s worth of water in the first two months or some statistic like that I don’t remember exactly. It was wet out, that’s not an understatement.

The lake here is a dry lake. All summer it’s full of white hardpan and lots and lots of white dust that stirs into dust devils and coats everything in the house after dust storms roll through. But come spring runoff or a good winter of rains and snows (because runoff hasn’t really gotten going yet) it fills up. Across the lake from us is the Nevada/California border, with Bordertown on the other side, reflecting red neon in the water.

I love having a lake that comes and goes. I love how ephemeral the lake is, and how the desert changes from one hike to the next. I haven’t been up this foothill since October when it got too cold. But these weren’t here when last I was.

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Impatience sent me up half an hour before sunrise this morning, because it’s still cold in the morning. Monday I hiked at a little after sunrise and it was in the 40s. This morning I hiked at half an hour before sunrise when it’s first light and when I got back down the foothill 40 minutes later the temperature was 28.

Not much company this morning. Two crows displeased with my appearance. They nest in the rocks and two summers ago actively threatened me, flying lower and lower. Which just delighted me, to see their feet so clearly, so close. Crows apparently have communal nests, because there were three of them harassing me and more in the nest making sure I knew I wasn’t welcome. Today they just soared overhead as I clamored up the hillside.

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My favorite things in life, outside people and cats that I love, include hiking in the foothills, writing speculative fiction, baking.

And pizza.

Putting together the writing, the baking and the pizza, and my friend Robert once said I had invented a whole new fiction genre – pizza writing. It’s true – my characters, unless they have to go somewhere fancy for reasons of plot (and then they complain) head for their favorite pizza place. Not much I can say – so many TV shows, movies and books show characters ordering Chinese food.

I don’t like Chinese food. But I do like pizza. So my characters eat pizza.

And so do I, and so does my husband. My very favorite, despite having worked there in college (usually the kiss of death for a place) is Round Table. Pepperoni, the Maui Wowie thing with bacon and pineapple, a pepperoni and pineapple my friend Samantha once ordered by mistake (she meant ham)…. Our other favorite is Grimaldi’s Coal Brick Oven Pizzeria, located handily near our favorite movie theater in Sparks.

Then there’s mine. Refined over many years of practice, I’ve gone through different sauces, tried making my own (never quite got there), oregano’d the sauce for a long time, stopped doing that. Usually the pizza is split in half – half pepperoni and sometimes mushrooms for Rick, half pepperoni and pineapple or green olives or black olives or tomato on my side.

The recipe I developed started on the back of a package of either flour or yeast. It’s long since vanished, but what remains is the fact that it originally called for amounts that wound up with me having two pizza skins. We didn’t need two. So I turn the other half into breadsticks. Too many breadsticks, so we have a few before the itself goes in the oven, accompanying them with the grated mozzarella and sharp cheddar, the chopped up pepperoni and sometimes the sauce. One or two breadsticks stuffed with leftover sauce, cheese or meat make a nice lunch the next day.

Pizza may not be the healthiest dinner ever, but if the rest of the week is homemade chicken noodle soup and soy sauced pork chops with a side of green beans or a baked apple, it’s probably all right in the scheme of things.

After all, there’s a whole sub-genre of stories with pizza at its core.

The Dough

¼ cup hot water and 1 ¼ cups hot water

1 tablespoon active dry yeast (not rapid rise)

¼ cup olive or canola oil (I do not like olive oil in this, but it’s an option)

2 teaspoons sea salt

4 to 5 cups all purpose flour

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the ¼ cup hot water. Allow to sit for 2 minutes to dissolve, then mix in the salt, stirring to dissolve, and the oil. Add the remaining 1 ¼ cups hot water and stir.

 

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The yeast and water with salt and oil, looking like a crescent moon and a universe.

 

I generally add the first 3 cups of flour all a once and stir, then turn out the sticky mass onto the lightly floured marble cutting board. I might only knead in another half a cup, or might go has high as 4 ½ cups total, though that’s rare. I try to knead until the dough has just the slightest stickiness or dampness on my hands, but isn’t covering me with dough as I knead. Too much flour will make for hard, dry dough, so I pay attention not only to how it feels under my hands but also to how much flour it’s picking off the board. It the dough isn’t drawing any more into itself, it’s probably just about there. If there seems to be a little too much flour in the dough at that moment, keep kneading – it will probably soften and dampen again.

Scrape the bowl fairly clean of clinging batter and return the dough to it. A clean bowl’s nice for the rise but not a necessity. Cover with plastic wrap or a clean dish towel. Allow to rise until doubled, usually 45 minutes to an hour.

 

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On to the first rise.

 

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Place racks in upper third of oven.

Turn dough out on a cleaned, lightly floured board and punch down. Separate into two uneven sections, maybe 2/3 together and 1/3 by itself. Set aside the larger portion and divide the smaller portion into approximately 6 breadsticks. I don’t measure. I just break off pieces and roll them between my palms like Play-Doh. Place on a foil lined cookie sheet. Melt about half a tablespoon of butter and brush the breadsticks with it. Sprinkle the breadsticks with garlic salt. Bake in preheated oven anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes for a deep golden crust to the tops (time is depending on how stubborn they are at browning this time).

 

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The ineffable pleasure of nicely risen dough.

 

When we first made the switch from margarine to anything else about 10 years ago, I experimented with other things to brush onto the breadsticks. I tried olive oil and didn’t like it on the dough anymore than I do in it. Tried various butters and finally hit on the salted butter, melted, and garlic salt lightly on top.

For the pizza, roll out the dough to pan size. A heavy dark pizza pan is a great investment – mine is flat, black and heavy, and has lasted a nice long time and the shiny, ridged, aluminum secondary pan I had was disposed of years ago. Top with sauce of choice (my favorite is Contadina Pizza Squeeze), cheeses of choice (mozzarella and sharp cheddar), and toppings of choice.

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Bake for approximately 13 minutes in the 500 degree oven. Transfer carefully to a cutting board. Promise yourself tomorrow’s dinner is a salad or a pork chop, and dig in.

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Spring in the High Desert – First Sunrise Hike of the Year

The year we found bobcat prints in the backyard, I spent a summer getting up at dawn and hiking in the 20 minutes before the sun came up. The only time I ever saw the illusive cat was the very first morning I went out. Just clearing the last steep hill that overlooks the cul-de-sac backyards in the pre-sunrise twilight, I saw about 5 houses away what looked like someone’s dog entering the open desert that runs behind the house. Stray dogs never, ever come helpfully to me so I can check tags and call owners. Stray dogs instead seem to think this is play time and I’m there so they can give me spitty kisses and jump up with their paws on my shoulders.

We’re in disagreement about that.

But another look to see if there were any humans near the putative dog made me do a double take.  Long, lanky legs and a curious gate.  That was my bobcat, jogging confidently up the trail toward me.  I held my breath but the cat disappeared into the tiny ditch behind the houses and from there, probably into the culvert. I’ve never seen him or her again.

Sometime last summer I got out of the habit of doing more than looking for tracks.  There are plenty.  Rabbits, kangaroo rats, quail, dogs people are walking. 

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What I haven’t gotten out of the habit of is the early morning hike, the earlier the better.  This morning I got out at 10 after 6, which was the same time the sun comes up.  I’ll have to leave earlier to catch the really lovely time, the purple time when the desert air is actually wet and all the animals are still out. 

This morning was just over 40 degrees, and turning back toward home and into the breeze was – let’s call it bracing.  During the walk I encountered three jackrabbits, two cottontails, one fat quail and one lone bird who sat and watched me and made disconsolate beeping noises.  My reassurances that I didn’t wish to eat it or its brood, incipient or otherwise, didn’t comfort it.  My leaving did.

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