Savory Stew

I love summer. I could happily live in the Game of Thrones world as long as it was the beginning of a particularly long summer season (and nobody killed me).

But today I made stew and tomorrow I’m making hand pies with the leftover stew bits. The hand pies are an experiment, and the stew I’ve only made twice, recreating my Grandmother’s beloved (and unrecorded) recipe. So it’s nice the weather cooperated – 70 in the evening, which is nice for a hot stew dinner, and 64 later as we got ready for bed – and nicer still that by week’s end it will be 90 again at our 5000 feet and hopefully warmer in the valley.

So here’s my take on stew, which I can’t imagine any characters in a quest fantasy making as they camp beside a road. Stew has a lot steps and they would be impossible over a campfire. I think questing stable boys who are really kings should travel with PB&J.


1 pound chuck tender roast (or your favorite roast)

5 tablespoons Crisco

1/3 cup (more or less) all purpose flour


Fresh ground black pepper

Sea salt

Baby carrots (or big carrots chopped to baby carrot size)

Fist-sized white or red potatoes, scrubbed and chopped to bite size

One small onion, roughly chopped (like into eighths)

2 to 4 cups beef bouillon

Scrub and chop the potatoes and carrots. Cover well with cold water in a medium sized pot and bring to a boil; continue to cook until they are just fork tender (i.e., the fork goes in but kind of has to be forced out).


Melt the Crisco over medium high heat in your favorite Dutch oven. Mine is a big cast iron pot with a lid, which was a wedding present. While the Crisco is melting, combine flour, oregano, salt and pepper in a large zipper plastic bag (or jar or other sealed container) and shake until all meat is coated. Reserve the leftover  flour.


Add the meat to the melted fat and toss occasionally as it browns. Some of it will stick to the bottom of the pan. That’s fine; I make that part of my stew.

When the meat is browned but still a little red inside, add judicious amounts of beef bouillon – I believe I used 2 ½ cups tonight, and 3 to 4 handfuls of the seasoned flour to thicken. This is personal preference here – I like a thick gravy for the stew, and enough of it to be sopped up with bread. While you’re doing this, the meat is still in the pan; stir it around a bit to get up some of the drippings and coatings stuck to the bottom of the pan.


Once the gravy is to your liking, both with thickness and volume, add your drained, cooked potatoes and carrots and the chopped onion. A bay leaf probably wouldn’t go amiss, but I haven’t added one yet and didn’t feel the stew was lacking because of it. Another nice addition would be fresh or frozen petite green peas if you don’t have a significant other who acts like he or she is being poisoned by the mere sight of peas.

Turn the heat to low and put the lid on at an angle. I let it cook an hour tonight because we were watching Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and that was about perfect. This makes 4 servings with some nice bread to dip in it, or 2 servings and leftovers for the hand pies. I’ll post about those once I’ve made them.

Country Crust Bread

This is the first bread I ever learned to make.  I was in college, and living in an 8-plex with a roommate in one of the 2 bedroom units.  University of Nevada, Reno, was right across the street, so it’s a wonder how very infrequently I went to class.

Because Kim and I were the first to move into the complex, and because we were excited to be out of our respective parents’ homes, we greeted everyone who moved in and soon knew the medical student upstairs and her husband and two kids and the enormous black Labrador they did not own because it was a no-pets building.  Then Ramana, head of the engineering school, who did not own fish, and Valerie, who taught preschool and did not have a cat, and Ray, who was going to be a dentist and didn’t have a love bird, and Jack, whose apartment I took when he and the marijuana plants he did not own moved away.  At that point Ray gave me the love bird and went on to not really own an African Gray Parrot and John and Barbara downstairs did not own an awful lot of marijuana they were selling.  At some point there was also Eric, the football player, who had a lot of different girlfriends, some of whom met each other unexpectedly and with explosive results.

I learned in that complex that college boys would eat anything, especially fresh, hot bread.  This one (and the cheese bread I posted some time ago) were both very popular.

I haven’t made this simple white bread in forever.  It’s an easy bread, a user friendly recipe that creates a bouncy, soft, elastic dough.  Brush the top of the finished loaves with a big slab of butter, letting it drip onto something easily cleanable or disposable like wax paper (trust me, you want to remember to put something under the wire rack…) and it’s wonderful as is, or for sandwiches, or with a roast cooked with all the trimmings, or at Thanksgiving dinner if you can convince your significant other to not have cheese bread instead (I cannot….)

Country Crust Bread

2 cups hot water in a large mixing bowl

2 packages active dry yeast (or 2 yeast spoonsful or 4 ½ teaspoons)

½ cup granulated sugar

1 tablespoon sea salt

2 eggs

¼ cup canola oil (or salad oil of choice)

6 to 6 ½ cups unbleached flour

Softened salted butter


2 9x5x3 loaf pans, greased

Dissolve the yeast in the water in the big mixing bowl.  Stir in the salt, sugar, oil, 2 eggs and mix well.  Add in the flour, one cup at a time, until the dough is not shiny sticky wet and can be lifted as one big elastic-y handful onto a floured work surface.IMG_6176

Knead in as much flour as needed to make the dough elastic and just short of wet.  If it can just barely accept more flour, but isn’t sticking in big clumps to your fingers, that’s a good place to be.  Evening, mid-80s, early August, 5000 feet, it took 6 and ¼ cups today.

Transfer into a large mixing bowl and cover with a clean dishtowel.  Leave in a warm place to rise until double, probably an hour (under summer high altitude conditions, mine was ready in 35 minutes.


Size when set to rise. In 35 minutes of August heat, it filled this huge glass bowl.


Punch dough back down and form into loaves for 2 normal sized loaf pans.  The directions say to roll out the dough into a 18×9 inch rectangle, then roll up from long side to long side, tucking the ends under to form a loaf.  I used to do that responsibly but since learned that if I just shape it into a ball, then keep running my hands from the top to under the sides to make a long oval with the seam on the bottom, then allow it to rise, the bread takes on loaf shape anyway by virtue of filling the pan.  I never liked all the rolling, measuring and tucking.

Allow to rise as loaves until double, about an hour in normal places, I think, or 20 minutes at 5,000 feet in August.  Brush both loaves with canola or salad oil.  I think you can do this right before putting them in the oven, but brushing them before leaving them to rise keeps the surface from becoming at all dried out.


This rise took 20 minutes.  Even at 5000 feet, that’s fast!


Bake in a 375 degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes or until tops are golden brown and the bottoms sound hollow when tapped. Gently release the breads from the pans and cool on a wire rack.  When they’ve been out of the oven 15 or 20 minutes but are still warm, place the rack over waxed or parchment paper, or a baking tray, to catch drips.  Run a pat of salted butter over the crust.


Fragrant and lovely.


This bread is great warm with butter (or jam or peanut butter or honey or almost anything) but let it cool at least 20 to 30 minutes or the crumb will crush down and the bread will seem undercooked, too wet in the middle (almost like clay, you can form shapes out of it – this will stop as it cools).

Once cool this bread has an open, easy crumb, and the loaves will last a couple days at room temperature.  If you have bread storage bags, you’re more prepared than I am – I use a gallon-sized zipper baggie and leave one end open – sealing up fresh bread tightly in plastic makes it sweat, leaving you with soggy or dried out and stale bread.  (Though in that case, there’s always bread pudding or French toast.)

If you try it, let me know what you think!


Books & Brews at the Bakery (brewed tea, that is)

When I was a kid one of my favorite books for the sheer fantasy and magic was Humbug Witch by Lorna Balian. It seems to be somewhere between picture book and first reader, not quite either, with wonderful line drawings shaded with one or two muted colors.  It’s about a little girl who plays dress up all day. With her pointy hat and stripy socks, she’s a witch who casts spells and has a cat named Fred who follows her about, mostly looking perplexed or playing with things.  I loved it because it was the magic I longed to find in everyday life, the “walk around the corner and the world has changed” type things, the “open this door and behind it is stardust and wonder.”

Similarly, I fell in love with every scrap of magic I found in books, like The Blue-Nosed Witch by Margaret Embry, and The Little Witch by Anna Elizabeth Bennett, not to mention The Peculiar Miss Pickett by Nancy Julian and April’s Witches by Beverly Crook.  And of course Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There and The Phantom Toll Booth.


This is my Grandmother’s 1916 Rand McNally & Co. copy, with illustrations by Milo Winter.


As an adult, I’ve just added another book to that list of magical getaways.  Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, basis of the SyFy channel’s series (which seems to be following along pretty closely, though we’ve only watched season 1 so far).

What I love is the time the author is taking to create a big fat real magical world with all the trappings and true-to-life characters so real that today I found myself thinking “No! Leave her behind! Don’t endanger yourselves for her!  I hate her!” about one of the characters (who you’re not supposed to like.)

I also love the magic that creeps into ordinary pages and the author either has wonderful and understanding editors or is never challenged to take it out.  I find when I say something flighty in a contemporary story or too flighty in fantasy that I’m usually asked to change it.  I love when magic like this is breathed into a book (and it reminds me to stick to my guns where my own fiction is concerned: no one knows what the next new and unique thing will be until someone writes it; if I’m lucky, I will be that someone).


I’m an impatient reader.  There are an endless number of books I want to read, many of them lining the bookcases and walls of my office.  I’ll never catch up and I’m not sure I want to

But I’ve been reading The Magicians by Lev Grossman since early April.  It’s not the only book – not even close – but I keep it on the cluttered kitchen table and read it when I’m waiting for something to bake or cook or steep.  I’m reading anything from zero to 20 pages a day, because I absolutely don’t want to take any chances that I’ll rush it.

So deep summer at High Desert Bakery, I pulled out one of my Yixing clay teapots and headed to Safeway for loose tea because I noticed they had bins of it last time I was there.


I love this Safeway – it’s in what strangely is a pretty strip mall in Sparks, off Vista Boulevard.  I may be prejudiced, because years ago my husband was foreman on the construction crew that did a lot of the remodel.  They put up the awnings, which still look good, and I remember they had endless trouble with the clock – it kept slipping sideways.  Time’s like that.




The grocery store itself is pretty, with what looks like old-timey hardwood floors in the produce section and these lovely bins of dried fruit and teas.  To celebrate midmonth and summer and mourn it running out too fast, I picked up a couple teas and tried some dried kiwi, which I’ve never seen before.



The kiwi is much better if gently reanimated with a little water – it’s also a gorgeous translucent green then.

This is the first of the teas I’m trying, raspberry passion black pekoe, with high caffeine and a wonderful taste.  I think I gave it a 5 minute steep, before joining it with the kiwi and The Magicians.  For another few carefully unrushed pages.

What are you reading?  And what are you eating with it if you eat while reading?  Any books you reread on a consistent basis and if so, what keeps them magical time and again for you?




Citrus Sugar Cookies

I’ve had this recipe in mind for months.  More impressive, though, I’ve had candied citrus peel in my freezer for months and it’s survived snack attacks.

In May I made a Shaker Lemon Pie and a Citrus Pie, from two different cookbooks, to see how they stacked up against each other.  At the time I imaged a beautiful picture of the two pies perched on rocks looking out over the fake lake that blooms in our desert valley when there’s heavy rain or snow runoff.  (This year it’s mid-August and the lake is still there.  It’s not spring fed – it’s actually usually dry; the desert just got that much water this past weird winter.)

However, I misjudged where the big rocks were I was looking for, and found only small rocks, a great view – and a rattlesnake.

When the pies and I made it home, I had a piece of each and then resolutely threw out the rest.  This is because I didn’t need two pies to myself, my mother-in-law lives too far away to take her two pies on a whim (and what would she do with two of them?) and we weren’t headed her way anyway.  My husband hates lemons, and every friend I know who lives local either never, ever eats flour/grains/sweets, or is protein-dieting heavily.  Before I tossed them, I pulled off the toppings and froze them.  They were too bright and pretty – and tasty – to toss.

My plan was to top sugar cookies with them and see what happened.  But I’ve never been able to make sugar cookies that didn’t turn into crumbs before I got them rolled out.  I’ve tried countless recipes.  This time, after thumbing through a well-loved red binger that bulges with my own recipes and family and friend recipes, I settled on my friend June’s recipe, because she indicated when she gave it to me a century ago, that it was no fail.  (Clearly June isn’t a century old, but I feel that way – perhaps our friendship involves time-travel.)

The recipe didn’t fail.  I failed it, a little, by not chilling the dough for 2-3 hours but overnight because I got sleepy and went to bed.  When I took it out 20 hours later it was rock hard.  By mangling and massaging it, though, the butter won through and the dough became soft enough to roll out.


Cold dough is not friendly.


The results are mixed.

The sugar cookies themselves are fantastic!  Light, crisp, and if you like a crisper cookie, give them 8 minutes, watching closely, and a more tender crumb (that still crumbles all over as you eat) 7 minutes.

The frozen citrus rounds were covered in the respective pie fillings.  The Build a Better Pie filling is all lemon and a simpler mix.  The Martha Stewart Pies is more complex, and uses oranges as well as lemons.

I baked some of the cookies with nothing on them.  Just because.  (Well, just because of my husband.)

I baked some of the cookies with the rounds of fruit on top, being baked in place.


I baked some of them with nothing on them and pressed the fruit on as soon as they came out.


I already knew the baked citrus was chewy.  A sensible thing might be to gently take the rind off when using sugar-dredged citrus as pie toppings, but the aesthetic would suffer.  Biting into a piece of the pie means really biting, or cutting first with a knife, or getting an entire citrus round in one bite.  It’s worth it!


So after baking the rounds on the cookies, biting into the cookie with a piece of lemon or orange, the citrus piece came off promptly and the cookie stayed behind with one bite taken out of it.

Oh.  And the ones that I put on the fruit after the cookies came out, they were softer, and mostly stayed in place, but somehow weren’t as interesting, the flavors not as intense.

There was still a chunk of dough left, warming on the counter because not going through that again, the over-chilling business.  Before rolling it out I cut up a bunch of the fruit into ¼ to ½ inch bites, and then when kneading the dough to make it pliable enough to roll out, I kneaded the fruit right into it (and was consequently sticky as hell).  Then the rolling out, which was more challenging, and the forming of cookies, which were more bumpy.

But the results of that batch were really good.  Kind of like citrons in cookies only so much more bright and tangy (candied peel is often very sweet).

I’m not sure what good this recipe does for anyone who hasn’t baked two Shaker pies and encountered a rattlesnake and had a nice hot summer for several months before making sugar cookies to add the fruit to, but there’s no reason candied lemon and orange slices couldn’t be stand-ins.  My own recipe for citrus strips is below.  No reason it wouldn’t work for slices.

The Cookies

1 ½ cups powdered sugar

1 cup (2 sticks) salted butter

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon almond extract

2 ½ cups unbleached flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

Cream sugar and butter until well blended.  Mix in the egg, vanilla and almond extract.  Mix well, then add the dry ingredients, blending them into the creamed mixture.

Refrigerate for two to three hours (apparently it means this).  Probably best to cover the bowl with some plastic wrap, too.

Divide dough in half.  Cover a pastry board with cloth (tea towel tucked under worked nicely) and flour the cloth.  Roll out to 3/16 of an inch thick.  Cut into 2 to 2 ½ inch rounds or whatever shape you like.  I just grabbed a drinking glass which turned out to be 3 inches and ended up with 42 cookies, I think.  They’re mostly gone now….

Place some distance apart (but they don’t spread that much) on greased or parchment-lined cookie sheets.  Bake in a preheated 375 oven for 7 to 8 minutes.  The bottoms should be turning golden brown.

Should make 5 dozen 2-inch cookies but I’ve never in my life had that happen.  I got 42 3-inch.  If they were a half again bigger, I should have had 45, I think – math and I are not friends – which is actually closer to the recipe-stated numbers than I usually get.  And I didn’t eat more than half a tablespoon of dough, because it’s sweeter than I like.  That didn’t stop me from eating the cookies.

Citrus Peel or Rounds

Short of making two variations of Shaker Lemon Pies and tossing out the pie part, I’d try dredging the thin sliced lemon and orange rounds under enough sugar to nicely cover them in a medium sized nonreactive mixing bowl.  Chill overnight and let me know what you decide to do with the vaguely crusty lemon and orange flavored sugar that will be left over.

You could take another step and briefly bake these as if they were the top of a pie, following the directions for the pies in the blog entry linked above.

Another option: try making candied peel and using that – this is my favorite recipe for candied citrus peel from Martha Stewart.

If you try them, let me know the results in the comments!

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.



Summer is for Salsa

August got here way too soon.  I could live all year in summer, hiking in the desert foothills at dawn, sitting out, directly in the sun during “severe heat warning” afternoons.  Watching sudden “flash flood warning” thunderstorms.  Watching the mini-bunnies grow up.

And going to the farmer’s market.  Made it on Saturday, which I don’t always — there’s always stuff to do and getting up in time on Saturday is a challenge.


Last Saturday I was lured out by the promise of fat, ripe tomatoes and big yellow onions and fresh sweet corn.  In the last 20 days I’ve done a 10-day cycle of juice cleanse, my first ever, which I think I may have done wrong, because I enjoyed it and used my blender for the juicing itself.  This was followed by 10 days of Atkins induction, which I’m just finishing, but with the addition of fresh fruit — it’s summer.

Saturday was the break.  I came home with quite the bounty, and put together a simple lunch out of the fresh produce and various cheeses already on hand.


Fresh salsa and chips with chicken for dinner.  My favorite salsa is fresh, chunky, all the flavors married by sitting together and mingling, exploding at each bite. Rick prefers the blended salsa, everything pureed into a colorful near-liquid.  So I do both, making the salsa as one and splitting the batch in half: part left chunky, part pureed.


This is simple, sunny and tasty.  Before serving, and before blending a portion, I pour the whole of it into a fine mesh strainer to remove most of the liquid.  What drains in the collection bowl may be eye-wateringly spicy from jalapeno, but tastes like a fresh, rather wonderful V-8 (even better, in my opinion, because there’s no overwhelming taste of bell pepper).

Simple Salsa

Fat ripe summer tomatoes, not Roma style – mix up colors if you want

Yellow onion


Sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Fresh cilantro to taste

Fresh oregano optional

Halve the tomatoes and squeeze out the juice, collecting it for some other recipe or just as fresh tomato juice if seeds don’t bother you. Chop the tomato into rough bites – my pieces are around half an inch in size.

Yellow onion to taste. I like to halve a big fat farmer’s market yellow onion, skin it and cut it into roughly quarter inch pieces.

Jalapeno – I use one to two, depending on how much they make my eyes water and how numb my lips go from tasting one. I generally leave out about 80 percent of the seeds — I like the taste of salsa; I don’t want to seer my tonsils.

Mix the vegetables in a medium sized glass or nonreactive bowl.  Cut cilantro and oregano, if using, into shreds and mix into the vegetables.  Sea salt and black pepper to taste.

Cover with plastic wrap so everything else in the refrigerator doesn’t end up tasting like onion and jalapeno, and let cool and mingle until you’re ready to drain and either puree or just eat as is.

To me, this is the taste of summer.



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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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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