Monday, February 23, 2009

Friendship/Lasagne Bianche

The older I have gotten, the more discerning I am about picking and choosing friends. I have to say that I usually like everyone, but true friends, the people that just get what I am saying without me having to explain, who know and love the best and worst of me, and mostly the people with who I can cry endlessly and laugh until my sides hurt, well those people are much harder to find. This weekend, three of my friends from high school came to visit me. After months of living in a new country around people that I may not always feel like myself around, this past weekend was a breath of fresh air. My sides are still hurting from the laughs, my head from the wine, and my heart after their departure. Between the goodbyes and the hellos, there was, as always, time to cook and eat.

My friend arrived Thursday night, after an eight hour train ride, and I knew that upon her arrival (it was her first time in Italy) she would be looking for a hearty Italian meal. I would even say that she got lucky because Thursday I had my last exam and nothing makes me unwind more than cooking. I made a creamy comforting Lasagne Bianche, or White Lasagne, layers of fresh lasagna noodles, with bechamel, caramelized leeks, and melted cheese.
When I cook for others, I feel as though I am offering a piece of myself, a glimpse at the passion and creativity that I hone when I am doing what I love. I truly believe that cooking for someone is sharing the greatest side of myself, the most honest, direct, true version of who I am and who I am becoming. The sides of myself that I am scared to confront and the characteristics that I like to flaunt, all come together in a single dish or meal. The true friends in life accept all of these, they take the good and the bad, and I, in turn, am beginning to have the courage to do the same.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Courage/Frenchie's Bread

I did it! After watching, who knows how many videos on kneading and proofing and second rises; reading endless recipe variations; and trusting myself to feel what was right, I finally made a tender, crusty, satisfying loaf of bread.

I think my greatest conclusion is that bread shouldn't be bread until it is bread. In other words, I wanted my dough to look and feel like bread, but usually that meant that I had over floured it and thus the result was dense and just wrong.

Saturday I went to a birthday party near Torino, it was a birthday party for a set of twins, and they were the only people at the party I knew. As I was leaving my house, I was so nervous. As much as I am getting used to living in a new country, my Italian lacks certain colloquialisms that would definitely make it a lot easier for me to socialize; however, I force myself night after night to put myself out there, let myself feel uncomfortable and just try to have fun because the truth is, I have nothing to lose. So I was at this party, and I was having such a nice time, everyone was friendly and interesting; and, people started asking me what I wanted to be "when I grow up." Truth, I do not consider myself a grown up yet (unless I am trying to convince my parents that I am "grown up" enough to do god knows what).
So as I was telling my new friends that no matter what my career would consists of cooking and food, they started to ask me more details, like what I prefer to make and what type of cuisine is my favorite. I decided to tell them about my adventures in breadmaking. Maybe it was the fact that I was willing to admit my failures to a group of strangers, or maybe it was that I was willing to admit it to myself, but the next day I opened the oven and out came the most perfect, golden loaf of bread. Putting myself out there, in the kitchen and out can be daunting, but at least this weekend, it was totally worth it.

Frenchie's Bread

125 g Bread Flour
125 g "00" flour + 2-3 tbsp. for dusting.
12.5 g Fresh Active Yeast
2 cups of warm water.
3 tbsp. olive oil
2 tsp. salt
1. Crumble yeast in water and let sit until foamy on top. Meanwhile, combine flours and 2 tbsp. olive in a large bowl. Add in water and combine thoroughly.
2. Lightly dust your counter with flour and begin kneading the dough. I used the "slap and fold" method. Gourmet describes this as " Slide your fingers underneath both sides of dough with your thumbs on top. Lift dough up (to about chest level) with your thumbs toward you, letting dough hang slightly. In a continuous motion, swing dough down, slapping bottom of dough onto surface, then stretch dough up and back over itself in an arc to trap in air. Repeat lifting, slapping, and stretching, scraping surface with flat side of bowl scraper as needed, until dough is supple, cohesive" ( This took me a long time because I am less familiar with this method.
3. Place kneaded dough in a well oiled bowl and let sit in a warm spot until double in size.
4. When it has doubled, slide onto counter, fold over several times to release some of the air bubbles, form into a smooth ball and let double again.
5. Take the ball out, reshape into a smooth loaf and place on baking sheet, gently cut an X into the top of the loaf. Lightly oil the loaf and let it rest/rise for 30 minutes. Meanwhile preheat oven to 425 degrees. When the oven is fully heated place a baking sheet filled half-way with water into the bottom of the oven.
6. Make sure oven is fully heated and put the baking sheet with the bread into the oven. After about 15 minutes, add another cup of cold water to the baking sheet at the bottom of the oven, the steam will help the bread fully rise and develop a thick crunch crust.
7. The bread should be ready after about 30 to 40 minutes. When the crust on both the top and bottom is golden brown.
8. Make sure to let the bread fully cool on a rack to allow for proper air circulation. It is also important to let the bread finish its cooking cycle.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Courage/Failed Bread

I was probably eight or nine when I made my first (failed) attempt to make bread. I was definitely an ambitious eight/nine year old, because I decided that I would make baguette. I guess I figured that as a student at the French school, I had the right to reach for the top and make the simple but practically impossible to perfect crusty, golden brown loaf. What I ended up with was a dense, over floured white log which would have probably been ideal as a fire starter come to think of it. Maybe it was the fact that I forgot to knead the dough, nonetheless the visions I had of myself as a grown-up adorned in white with a cloud-like hat upon my head went right out the window. Aside from the pain of personal failure, I was also devasted because this bread was intended as a Mother's day gift (made the day-of) and I was left with something likened to semi-edible playdoh for my mom. I tried to cover up my tracks (more for myself than for her) and pretend the bread fiasco never happened, but any good thief knows that flour leaves some serious tracks; and, well I was busted. My ever-pragmatic mom thanked me for thinking of her and then suggested that I leave bread-making to the professionals, because no matter what homemade bread was never as good as what you could buy. I didn't believe her then; and I don't believe her now. After all, breadbaking started off at home.
So, several years later and an ocean away, I find myself living in Italy and my desire to learn about food and learn to make the "un-makeable" is overwhelming. I have decided to put my failed past behind me and try to make bread again. I have no training, no reason to think that I am capable of doing so, other than the fact that I am desperate to succeed, desperate to burn my fingers on the freshest of crusty, golden goodness.
I am proud to announce, I am getting there. Well the burned fingers part is taken care of, and as for the perfect bread, I think it will happen on the next try. Italians are by far some of the most regionalist people I know, and the debate over which bread is best is practically never-ended.
My favorite is Sicilian bread, unlike bread from other regions, it uses salt and is topped with crunchy sesame seeds. I decided to try this one first. It was good, definitely edible especially dipped in succulent italian olive oil. It was a little denser than I wanted and the top crust was slightly leathery (the bottom crust was perfect!). I identified a few of the mistakes I made and tried to rectify them today when I made a Rosemary-Walnut Boule.
Huge improvements, the inside was fluffy and flavorful, and the leatheriness was less of an issue. Next, I am going to try out the Focaccia alle Cipolle I keep buying at the panificio on my street.
I am 98% confident that tomorrow's attempt will be "the one." If not, well then definitely the day after tomorrow's. That's the thing about cooking, you can just keep trying, time after time until you get it just right.