Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Are My Roots Showing?

Whew! Now that Christmas -- and the mad dash of baking that preceded it -- is over, I can take a partial vacation week and maybe get caught up with things at home.

I say maybe because, well, really, who am I kidding? I'm still baking bread for market this week -- though not as much -- and I have a to-do list as long as my arm. So while I have great hopes that I will accomplish a lot, I'm not going to hold my breath that absolutely everything will get done.

But one thing I was determined to do this week was to cook something -- something new, something substantial, something using food from the garden, something for myself.

The weather has been mild enough this month to allow me to get out to the garden and harvest most of the lingering root vegetables: carrots, parsnips, a couple wee little golden beets, and a few very large and very beautiful scarlet turnips. (The celery root came from, where else, Local Roots.)

I found a recipe for a root vegetable pot pie, and I thought it was time to give it a go. I peeled and diced plenty of those vegetables, adding in some of the turnip leaves as they looked and tasted really good. The recipe called for a white sauce to be added with the vegetables, and though mine was a little thin, it did help cook them to satisfying tenderness before I added -- get this! -- an herbed biscuit topping. (That was the appeal of the recipe: no crust to make!)

The results were both wonderfully satisfying and a little disappointing. The disappointment came from the fact that vegetables virtually disappeared! I probably could have added twice as many vegetables for the way they got swallowed up in the biscuit topping.

But then, I seriously love biscuits and was more than happy to enjoy that part of the meal, with a few excuses for vegetables thrown in. (The Renaissance Man thoroughly agreed.)

I'm not sure how much I'll get done from that to-do list, but one thing's for sure...

I will definitely have dinner ready for a few nights.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Common Scents

The holidays are drawing closer, and I've been busy baking every day, turning out not only the usual daily breads but also some holiday favorites and other seasonal treats. The Renaissance Man sometimes likes to stop by just to inhale the aromas, and I can't say I blame him, especially since olfactory pleasure is the only kind I can indulge in where my baking is concerned these days.

So here are a few tantalizing hints at how fragrant my days are:

The mornings typically start at 2 AM with a stumble to the kitchen, preheating the oven to 450 F, setting the kettle on to boil, and prepping the first artisan loaves while I start the first batch of sandwich breads. The artisan loaves are absolutely heavenly -- the simplest of yeast doughs, baked at high temperatures for that bakery-fresh scent. Yum.

Next come the sandwich loaves, the ones made in the usual loaf pans -- and there are eight current varieties to choose from! Above is my honey-oat-spelt bread, one of the more popular flavors, and yes, it smells just as good as it looks.

Once the basics are covered, I'll move on to the sweeter breads or specialty loaves. My newest is an apple strudel bread (shown here from its prototype days), which features a vegan spelt dough, a luscious apple-cider filling, and a hickory syrup glaze. I also make rings of cinnamon or pecan rolls, and at this time of year I might slip in a loaf of julekage as well.

The filling for the apple strudel bread is one I particularly enjoy inhaling. Even though I don't care for standing slightly stooped over the counter to peel, core, and chop apples for it, once I mix up all the ingredients and start to simmer the lot, my whole apartment smells like commercial apple pies -- only without the additives. This fragrance alone takes care of any sweet cravings I may have, and I don't even have to eat a bite.

Once or twice a week, I get the thrill of melted butter, spiced nuts, and hot honey syrup joining together in a pan of baklava. The perfume of this dessert is reason enough to put the work in behind it!

And, of course, I usually offset these smells with a good hot cup of tea wafting its steam up my nose.

There are definitely perks to working at home!

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Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Star in the Yeast

Since I enjoy teaching cooking classes at Today's Kitchen Store so much, I let the owners and the kitchen manager persuade me into scheduling a few baking classes. Yesterday I kicked off a month-long flurry of sharing my baking techniques with a class on holiday yeast breads.

Now, a baking class is a very different animal than the seasonal produce classes I had taught so far. Given the same time frame -- 1 1/2 hours -- and a menu of three different yeast breads, I had to do some juggling to cover everything. Because as any baker knows, you just can't rush yeast.

I went into class with one dough (a no-knead artisan dough) already made and the liquid heated for the other two items on the agenda. But I still miscalculated and ended up not serving two of the breads until the 2-hour mark -- with some major idle times in the class in between.

Overall, the reception of the class -- eight participants who had lots of good questions -- was great, and they enjoyed the finished products. I was able to use the times when doughs were rising to have everyone introduce themselves and talk about their holiday baking specialties or to open the floor for questions and troubleshooting. But I will definitely have to restructure my class plans -- and prep! -- before the next yeast bread class so that we're not spinning our wheels so much.

I didn't bother with my own photos this time, because once you've seen one photo of a bowl of flour, you've seen them all. But Rick, the co-owner and self-appointed class photographer, posted the photos he took on Facebook. I took the liberty of adding one here so you can get the general idea of how I operate in a class.

While it wasn't my best class to date, I learned a lot from it and will definitely have an improved plan and more research under my belt before I teach a class on kneaded versus no-knead breads in January.

And I'm getting more ideas for future classes, too!

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Saturday, December 03, 2011

Oh, Year

What did I say in that long-ago last post? Yep. Blink. There went November.

Now all of a sudden, it's December -- and I'm knee-deep into holiday preparations in baking, not to mention trying to find a moment to celebrate this little blog's anniversary. Hard to believe I've been writing here for seven years now.

So maybe that explains why I'm feeling unsure of the future direction here -- that good ol' seven-year itch. Part of me feels like there's more I could do or say somehow, more areas of the kitchen to explore -- and part of me feels like I spend so much of my life around food that even I am bored with hearing myself talk about food.

Guess it's appropriate, then, that it's time for a year-end review and some thinking about where I might go from here. First, let's flash back to last year's review:

I also still don't want to bake full-time." Ha! Famous last words! Now that Local Roots is open six days a week, and the Local Roots Cafe is also up to speed (and using my bread for paninis and other sandwiches), I am regularly baking every day. (Sundays I'm usually just whipping out the first batch of panini loaves for the cafe -- not too time-consuming.) So that definitely changed my plans for the year.

"I will have less space for my own gardens this year, not more." Again, that didn't end up quite as expected since the Contradance Callers invited me to share space at their garden -- thus increasing my growing space 100%. That gave me the opportunity to plant some different crops and to learn from other experienced gardeners -- a really fortuitous change of plans!

I need to make a little more time for my writing again." Well, you might not have noticed it so much here, but I did eventually start to get caught up on book reviews and a couple of other pieces for The Ethicurean, and I have submitted a few things to Farming Magazine as well. Writing a good deal for the Local Roots newsletter helps... but there's room to grow here, too.

As far as other goals go, I didn't get much additional farming experience, aside from one visit to the Delighted Gardener's plots. I did find other outlets for selling my baked goods. I did keep up with eating out of my pantry last winter, and I did get a little more reading in (though I still have a few titles I need to work into my winter reading pile).

On the whole, I would say it was a very good year. The baking business grew at a gradual pace, allowing me to tweak my baking schedule and offerings regularly without feeling overwhelmed by what I had committed myself to do. I had good crop yields from my gardens, with enough to share with friends and even some to donate to the Local Roots Cafe. I limited my food preservation to what I would truly want to eat or use in baking, thus freeing up some time and personal energy. And I still had time to spend with friends, enjoying the fruits of my labor.

But change for the New Year is already afoot. My personal eating habits have had to undergo significant alterations this fall due to various health issues created by my eating too much of my own baked goods -- no details are necessary, save to say that I am right off anything with sugar or most any baked goods in general. And in tandem with that, I confess to having made a gradual shift from being a vegetarian to being what the Renaissance Man calls a "meat snob" -- someone who will eat meat that is sourced from a trusted local producer.

This is all creating a more mindful approach to what I eat, because it's amazing to discover just how many things -- especially condiments and sauces -- that I have to avoid now due to "hidden" ingredients that will do me no good. I'm learning to simplify my cooking and my palate -- but also craving some new things that I hope will expand my culinary skills. I definitely have room to grow here.

Other things to look forward to in the coming year:

1. Over the next month, I'll be exploring other ways to grow my baking business. Since this clearly is where the bulk of my work time is being spent, and since I do need to bring up my income level somewhat, I need to consider new ideas: new products, new outlets, new customers. I've had some success this past year in introducing new products at Local Roots, from different sandwich breads to a delicious apple strudel bread that has become popular and new tea and herb blends. I hope to come up with several ideas that I can implement throughout the coming year.

2. I want to start my garden planning for next year now and to start some seeds even as early as January. And I want to make sure that by midsummer 2012 I'm getting seeds started for fall crops -- I fell behind on that this year and don't have as much in the garden right now as I had hoped (though I still have beets, turnips, carrots, parsnips, and chard to pick).

3. While I plan to continue following the Independence Days challenge for myself, I'm less likely to post about it here since I will probably incorporate it into a column for the Local Roots newsletter. And I really want to do better at record-keeping for next year's preservation -- I did none of that this year.

4. I will try to pursue other outlets for my food-related writing. Farming Magazine is a great local option, but I have a couple of other possibilities in mind, so I want to look into those before I say anything more.

5. I have really enjoyed teaching cooking classes at Today's Kitchen Store this year, so I want to spend some time in coming weeks thinking about potential future classes. Teaching these classes not only brings in a little extra income, it's also a wonderful way for me to brush up my knowledge and skills. So far I have plans to work with a friend on an herbal tea class next summer, and the store owners would like me to come up with additional Local Roots-sponsored classes featuring seasonal produce. It's a good start!

Well, those are my goals for the year. Now, let me turn it over to those of you who are still reading this struggling little site -- based on that, what would you enjoy reading about? What ideas do you have for me?

Let me know -- I'm staying open to whatever happens!

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