Last Sunday, Dave and I had a lot of fun at a bread and butter making class at Swissbäkers in Allston, MA.  The class was taught by Thomas Stohr, one of the founders.  Thomas was a great teacher who kept the class interesting by interweaving stories into the instruction.  He told us how the bakery was founded, what they look for in their employees (you must love food!), and entertaining stories of his experiences at Swissbäkers.  Two hours was allocated for our class, but most of the work was finished in about 1.5 hours.

First, the butter…

Actually, first we all had to wash our hands!  But afterwards, we started on making the butter.  Our butter was made by shaking small glass jars that were filled about halfway with heavy cream.

You actually have to shake quite vigorously in order for a solid ball of butter to form.  Here’s what my butter looked like.  The remaining liquid you see is buttermilk, which can drained or drunk.

Next, the bread…

While most of the class was shaking their jars of heavy cream, a few members of the class helped divide each of the two rounds of prepared dough into 36 equal portions with the help of a machine.

Then each of us took our portions of dough and began to shape them.  Thomas walked around helping us create the shapes we wanted.  I learned how to braid bread.  There was another machine that would turn stretch a portion of dough into a long strand for you.  Dave and I both used this as long strands were good for the braids and pretzels we made.

Afterwards, we put the bread into a proofer and waited for the dough to rise.  When the dough had risen, it was time to put on egg wash and toppings.  For toppings, we were provided with sliced almonds, raisins, and pearl sugar.  The sugar was especially important since the dough was not sweetened.  Only a little bit of sugar had been added to the dough for yeast food.

Finally, the dough went into the oven for about 20 minutes.  Halfway through, each tray was turned so it would bake more evenly.  While the dough was baking, we were free to wander around the kitchen, or ask Thomas any questions we had.

Lastly, the eating!

Once our breads were done baking, the trays were pulled out and as soon as they were cool enough for us to touch, we put our breads in paper bags and headed out of the kitchen into the Lucerne room — a room with a mural of Lucerne, the city the founders are from — to enjoy our breads with a drink of our choice.  I had the hot chocolate which is made from imported Swiss chocolate and Dave had a mixed drink of half hot chocolate half coffee.  I must say, warm, freshly baked bread is delicious and even more delicious when you’ve made it yourself!

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It may sound cliché, but if I had to choose a desert island food, it would be pizza. I love all kinds from Chicago deep dish to traditional Neapolitan, but my favorite is a properly executed NYC-style thin crust. Specifically, the traits I’m looking for in my homemade pies are the following:

  1. The crust needs to stand on its own among the most delicious of breads. The thick outer ring of the crust – sometimes called the “cornicione” – should have a deep flavor, open crumb with plenty of bubbles, and deeply browned and crunchy surface. The thin part of the crust (the part underneath the toppings) should be stratified into three layers: a crispy cracker-like bottom, a bread-like center, and a soft, squishy top layer that almost seems to melt into the tomato sauce. I don’t want the slice to flop or fold too much when I pick it up – it’s got to have some structure.
  2. A bright tasting sauce that carries the essence of fresh tomatoes. It shouldn’t taste like tomato paste.
  3. Browned, bubbly cheese that has some body to it. It should stretch a bit when you take a bite, but not to the point of becoming stringy.
  4. Other toppings, if used, should not detract from any of the above. I’ve made the mistake of using too many watery toppings, such as peppers and onions, which inevitably lead to a soggy crust.

There’s many ways to make a great pizza, and everybody has their own favorite style. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to develop a good base recipe that suits my own personal tastes. In this post, I’ll describe where I’m currently at – but I’m certain that as I continue learning and experimenting, my recipes and techniques will evolve.

The Sauce

Getting the sauce right proved to be very elusive. I spent years thinking that the secret lay within the ingredients – grating and then browning the onion before adding everything else, adding hints of nutmeg, using fresh tomatoes instead of canned, stirring in fresh basil off the heat once the cooking was done, and so on. No matter what I did, the tomato flavor ended up lacking. It tasted like tomato paste, or sauce out of a jar. I could never capture the “essence” of the tomato flavor. I eventually gave up on cooked sauce and started using a sauce made from raw, puréed tomatoes and salt. It’s supposedly more authentic as far as Neapolitan pizza goes, but it still didn’t do it for me. It tasted fresh, but it was too watery and too thin-flavored. There had to be a way to hold on to that freshness, but “unlock” the tomato essence that I knew was there.

It wasn’t until I picked up a copy of Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking that I had a breakthrough. Her recipe for tomato sauce with onions and butter found in the chapter on pasta sauce was exactly the sauce that I spent years searching for. It wasn’t just the ingredients, though – it turns out that my technique had been wrong all along. You see, I was cooking my sauce in a 12″ or 14″ skillet, and over medium heat with lots of bubbling. Over the course of cooking, the sauce would always become a darker, duller red and in the process pick up that tomato paste flavor. Once I switched to a 2-quart saucepan and used the lowest heat my stove was capable of providing, everything changed. Even with canned tomatoes, the gentle, low heat cooking preserved the fresh tomato flavor but also unlocked something more – the tomato “essence” I keep talking about. Now I cook my sauce at a simmer – no bubbling or boiling, just a steady stream of steam coming off the surface. Here’s the recipe I use nowadays. It’s similar to Marcella’s, but it calls for canned tomatoes instead of fresh, and less butter.

Sauce Recipe
Ingredients

  • One 28 ounce can of Muir Glen San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes
  • 3 tablespoons of butter
  • 1 medium onion, skinned and sliced in half
  • 1 teaspoon salt. This is about right for the Muir Glen tomatoes, which are far and away my favorite. If you use a different brand of tomatoes, you may need to adjust the amount of salt you use, depending on how much sodium they already contain.

Instructions
In a food processor on low speed, blend the tomatoes. They don’t have to be perfectly smooth, but all of the large chunks should be gone. Pour the tomatoes into a 2 quart saucepan, and add the butter, onion halves, and salt. Bring to a simmer, and then reduce the heat to very low. Apply enough heat to maintain a steady evolution of steam, but don’t let the sauce bubble or boil. Cook about 40 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so. Once the sauce is finished cooking, remove the onion halves and use them for something else – I often slice them and add them to a vegetable sauté. You can freeze the sauce, but I have found that I like the flavor best the same day it’s cooked. I find that it loses significant flavor when stored in the refrigerator.



The Dough

After experimenting with many dough recipes, I settled on one which is pretty similar to what I use for French baguettes, but with the addition of a small amount of oil and sugar. I like to use a scale to weigh all of my ingredients, which has helped my breads be much more consistent. It only takes a few grams of water to go from 65% to 70% hydration; at 65% hydration, the dough is very workable, but at 70% it has the tendency to become much more sticky and harder to work with. Here’s the formula in baker’s math:

Dough Recipe
Ingredients

  • 100% High gluten flour, such as King Arthur Flour Sir Lancelot. If you can’t easily obtain this, use a good quality bread flour such as the one made by King Arthur. I typically use about 500 grams at a time, which is enough to make 4 small pizzas, 3 medium pizzas, or 2 large pizzas.
  • 65% water
  • 2% olive oil
  • 2% sugar
  • 2% salt
  • 1% yeast (I use the SAF Red instant dry yeast)

Instructions
The first step is to autolyse the flour and water. Mix the flour and water until no dry flour remains, then let it sit covered for 30 minutes. It’s remarkable how much easier the dough is to work if you do this before adding the rest of the ingredients and kneading. Next, add the sugar, salt, and yeast, incorporating them uniformly into the shaggy mess of flour and water. I then knead the dough for about 6 minutes in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Once the dough passes the windowpane test, add the olive oil and continue mixing a few minutes more until it’s incorporated. Take the dough out of the machine and knead it by hand a few times until it’s smooth, supple, no longer sticky, and you can stretch it into an impressively thin windowpane. Form it into a tight, smooth ball, and then put it in a bowl at least 4 times its volume. Cover, and put into the fridge to slowly ferment. Let the dough ferment anywhere between 1 and 3 days in the fridge. You will get a slightly different flavor and texture on each day,  so experiment and choose the rising time which works best for you.

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The Pizza

When you’re ready to make the pizza, start by preheating your oven to 500 degrees F. You’ll want to use a baking steel, stone, or tiles – I prefer the baking steel made by Nerd Chef, available here on Amazon. I put mine on the 2nd from the top oven shelf, and I let the oven preheat for at least an hour. This is a good time to take the dough out of the fridge to warm up. Divide it into 2, 3, or 4 pieces depending on how big you want your pizzas, and form each piece into a tight ball. Keep them covered with plastic wrap while they rest.

After the dough has rested at room temperature for about an hour, it’s time to shape the pizza. I like to use semolina flour on my work surface and peel to prevent the dough from sticking. To shape each pizza, place each ball of dough in the center of your floured work surface – a clean counter top or a large sturdy cutting board work well. Gently start pressing the middle of the dough outwards and away from you, rotate the dough, and repeat. Keep using this motion to form the ball into a disk, being careful not to completely deflate the outer ring of the disk – that’s the part of the crust you’re going to hold on to with your hands, and you want it to end up nice and puffy. Once you’ve formed a 6 to 10 inch disk, depending on the size of your pizzas, you can gently pick up the dough and start using your fists to stretch it. The classic “tossing” technique that you’ve probably seen pizza makers employ involves letting the dough hang over your fists and then using a quick toss to rotate it. Gravity and centrifugal force work together to stretch the dough. You’re looking for a thickness between 1/8″ and 1/4″ depending on how thin you like your crust. Try to keep it uniformly thick, and pay close attention to any spots that start to get too thin, because you don’t want a big hole in your crust.

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Once the crust is shaped, gently lay it flat on a floured pizza peel. Working quickly, slather it all over with cooled tomato sauce, leaving the puffy cornicione bare. Then, layer it modestly with thin slices of mozzarella cheese. For my taste, thin slices of cheese win over shredded cheese – the sliced cheese seems to “stretch” a bit better. Most recipes for Neapolitan pizza call for fresh (high moisture) Mozzarella, sometimes made from buffalo milk but more commonly made from cow’s milk. Believe it or not, my personal preference is for the less expensive low moisture variety, especially when made from whole milk. In my opinion, low moisture Mozzarella browns much better than fresh Mozzarella, is a little bit more meaty, and has a richer flavor. If you’re counting calories, you can use part skim Mozzarella, but it’s not quite as tasty as whole milk Mozzarella. Now is the time to add any other toppings to your pizza, but be a minimalist. Too many toppings make the pizza more likely to get soggy, prevent the cheese from browning, and can even make the dough stick to the peel under their extra weight.

When you’re ready to slide the pizza into the oven, turn on the overhead broiler. Quickly slide the pizza from the peel onto the baking stone, giving it a quick jerk but being careful not to fold it or have it fly off the peel – years ago when I first started making pizza at home, I accidentally flipped a pizza off from the peel onto the bottom of my 500 degree oven…my smoke alarms promptly went off, and needless to say the entire rest of my evening was spent scrubbing my oven clean. If your pizza sticks to the peel anywhere, you probably didn’t use enough flour to line the peel. You can keep an oiled metal spatula ready to help scoot the pizza off of the peel in case of any sticking.

Once the pizza is on the baking surface and the broiler is blazing, you’ll need to watch the pizza like a hawk because it’s going to cook fast – mine are done in about 5 minutes. Your oven may have an automatic shut-off circuit for the broiler which triggers when the internal temperature gets too high – you can prevent this from happening by wedging your oven door open just a crack by using a metal utensil. Slide the finished pizza out of the oven and onto a wire rack to cool. Now is the time to add the final touches: I prefer finely grated Parmesan cheese, shredded raw basil leaves, and sometimes a tiny drizzle high quality olive oil. Once the pizza has cooled a little, it’s time to cut it and eat it!

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Our garden is providing us with a wide variety of produce including zucchini, eggplants, sweet 100 cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, and lots of herbs.  We’ve even had two chocolate peppers from the plants we purchased at the plant sale earlier this year.  The fresh taste of homegrown vegetables is one of the motivating factors for me to continue gardening.  However, our bountiful crop often has us scrambling to find recipes for the produce that is ripe for harvest.  The following are some of our go-to ideas for how use up our produce.

Pizza

Many of our garden produce serve well as pizza toppings.  One of our recent pizza dinners had the following toppings from our garden — a chocolate pepper, cherry tomatoes, and basil.  Here’s what the toppings looked like prior to being cooked.

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After they were put on a pizza and baked, the toppings looked this. Stay tuned for an upcoming post from Dave detailing his pizza recipe!

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Ratatouille

For some, such as Anton Ego in the animated film Ratatouille, this dish brings back fond memories of an idyllic childhood.  For others (including us), this is a simple and delicious dinner.  Below is a picture of the garden produce that ended up in our recent ratatouille dinner — a zucchini, an eggplant, cherry tomatoes, and a chocolate pepper.

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We supplemented the above ingredients with a yellow squash from the grocery store to make the following dish.

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If you are interested in making ratatouille, Dave used a recipe similar to this one.

 

Stir-fry for Vegetable Medleys

It’s difficult to have all the produce you need for a particular recipe ripen at the right time.  Stir-fries are a good option when you have a medley of vegetables that just don’t fit any one recipe.  Below is one of the stir-fries Dave made for us.  You can see the bell peppers, gold rush beans, sweet 100 cherry tomatoes, fingerling eggplant, and snow peas from our garden supplemented with an onion from the grocery store.  This stir-fry was sauteed in peanut oil with a little bit of garlic.

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Are there any recipes you recommend for homegrown vegetables?  Please share!

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The Rising Popularity of Baos

Baos, the Chinese steamed bun, have become increasingly popular in many restaurants.  Baos can be eaten plain or with a sweet or savory filling.  Some traditionally common fillings include Chinese bbq pork, red bean paste, or custard.  However, the baos offered in restaurants have demonstrated that baos can be stuffed with anything!  Dave and I recently tried out Shojo Restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown, whose dinner menu offers many different kinds of baos.  Although their dinner menu changes, shrimp baos, shitake mushroom baos, pork baos, and even burger baos (a hamburger using a bao as the bun) have been offered before.  We tried the pork baos and although we thought they were good, they were very pricey.  Many of Shojo’s bao dishes which come with two baos cost $8-10+.  I (Sharon) have always loved steamed buns and can’t recall any other time I’ve paid so much for any kind of bao in Chinatown.  I recently had a craving for baos and since we didn’t want to pay the same prices as before, we decided to try to make our own today.

Making Our Own Baos

We followed this recipe with a few minor changes.  We followed all the dough making steps until it was time for second proofing, the process of letting the dough rise.  As we didn’t have a bamboo steamer, instead of proofing the dough in the steamer, we performed our second proofing on a baking tray as shown below.  We flattened each round of dough on a piece of parchment paper and covered it with another baking sheet.

Flattened dough rounds.

Flattened dough rounds.

 

Flattened dough rounds covered for second proofing.

Flattened dough rounds covered for second proofing.

 

Here’s what the dough looked like after the second proofing.

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Afterwards, it was time to steam the buns.  We put the buns into our steamer pot.  Here they are.

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Buns being steamed.

 

After 25 minutes, we took them out.  However, as soon as we took them out, they shrank and had wrinkly skins!  Some online resources mention that adding some fat such as oil and baking powder will help prevent the skins from becoming wrinkly, so we’ll keep that in mind for next time.  Despite the look, I (Sharon) took a bite and they tasted just fine.

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Homemade Pulled Pork Baos

We then sliced them hamburger-style and used them to make pulled pork sandwiches using some leftover homemade pulled pork from our freezer and some quick-pickled carrots and cucumber Dave made (similar to this recipe, but substituting cucumbers for the daikon and adding some ginger and raw garlic to the pickling liquid). They were delicious and we ended up having three sandwiches each.  We still need to iron out the kinks with the wrinkly skins, but I’m excited that from now on, I can satisfy my bao cravings in our own kitchen!  And if the post on baos has you craving them too, try making your own!

Pulled pork bao with coleslaw.

Pulled pork bao with coleslaw.

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