Sunday, December 16, 2018


Recently, I got it in my head that I needed to conquer croissants. I mean, puff pastry is Baking 101, right? In the Great British Baking Show, the ability to turn out a quick puff pastry is a basic requirement. All the bakers can make it, no problem. So why not me?

Turns out, the number of variations on the theme were rather overwhelming. Which kind of butter: Salted or unsalted? Plain, or fortified with wheat germ and flour? All butter, or a mixture of butter and (blech) margarine?

About the method: quick puff or a slow, three-day process? No leavening or yeasted? Ad should the dough rise before baking? Or was it better to freeze it first and then pop it directly into the oven? Or should I do both?

It was enough to make my head spin.

Hoping to find someone who knew a thing or two, I emailed a friend. Have you ever made puff pastry? I asked.

Nope, she wrote back. But I know I’d rather shove bamboo under my fingernails.

So yeah. No help there.

You know, being a self-taught baker (or a self-taught anything, for that matter) can be exhausting. Sometimes, especially when I’m trying to master a new recipe that I know nothing about, I just want someone to hold my hand and show me. I want a Gold Standard, something against which I can compare myself. But short of becoming best buds with a French pastry chef, or actually traveling to France (ha, dream on), I’m on my own, sigh.

I’ve now made puff pastry a number of times over the last few weeks and, while the idea of folding and rolling a entire slab of butter directly into dough does seems like a disaster waiting to happen, it turns out it’s actually a clean-cut, simple process with very little mess. A couple batches in and the method began to feel almost intuitive.

frozen raw (and twice glazed) and then glazed for a third time and popped into the oven, still frozen

There were problems, though. Most notably, no matter how long I baked the croissants, they felt a little gummy inside, like they were either underbaked (they weren’t) or they had too much butter (impossible). Weirdly enough, they tasted better the second day, especially when I split them lengthwise and stuffed them with ham.

Desperate for insights, I shelled out the several dollars for a Panera croissant. Biting into the pastry, I was horrified to discover that here, instead of baking bits of dark chocolate into the actual pastry, they’d just sliced a regular croissant in half and stuffed it with chocolate icing! Furthermore, the actual croissant was practically tasteless. Hmm, I thought as I gagged it down, I guess the competition isn’t as stiff as I thought.

what an actual chocolate croissant should look like, according to Miss No Nothing Moi

I continued to plug away, and finally, a couple nights ago, I actually turned out a steller, honest-to-goodness croissant. How did I know? I'm not sure! Just, one bite and all the pieces — the researching, the tasting, the redoing — slipped into focus and I knew this was it: I'd made a croissant.

Much, I imagine, as Wonder Bread tastes nothing like a crusty artisan loaf of sourdough, these croissants don't taste like commercial ones. Even though they're airy-light, with hundreds of spectucular layers, there's a heft to them, a rich flavorfulness that makes them more substantial.

That night, I couldn’t stop cutting the croissants: vertically! horizontally! With each cut, I'd scrutinize the internal structure and then, squealing triumphantly, hold the pieces out for everyone to admire. The kids watched me like baby hawks, smiling and nodding, waiting for me to quit gloating and feed them already.

My success, however, was short-lived. A couple days ago I baked up a few croissants, exactly as I did the other night (and from the same batch and with the same process, straight from the freezer into the oven), so I could take photos. After letting them cool for 15 minutes or so, I cut into one and — what in the world? — they had that undone look again! I'd baked them at 400 degrees for exactly 30 minutes, too, so I know they're done. I can not, for the life of me, figure out what's going on. Anyone? ANYONE?

Adapted from Issue 97 of Fine Cooking.

Make sure to use instant yeast, not rapid rise. (Rapid rise yeast needs to be activated with warm liquid, while instant yeast goes straight into the dough.) I buy little individual packs of instant yeast special for this recipe (and for making ciabatta), and then store them in the freezer.

For the butter layer, I use Kerrygold. The flavor shines through, so it’s absolutely worth the extra cost.

1 pound 2 ounces all-purpose flour
5 ounces each cold water and milk
2 ounces sugar
1½ ounces butter, softened
1 tablespoon, plus scant ½ teaspoon, instant yeast
2¼ teaspoons salt
10 ounces good quality, cold butter, for the butter layer
1 egg, for the egg wash

Day One
In the bowl of a stand mixer (or, if making by hand, in a regular mixing bowl), combine the flour, water, milk, sugar, the 1½ ounces butter, yeast, and salt. Using a dough hook, mix for 4-6 minutes. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured bowl, cover with plastic, and refrigerate overnight

Day Two
Arrange the butter in a rectangle and sandwich between two sheets of plastic wrap. Using a rolling pin, pound and roll the butter until it’s roughly a 7-inch square. Wrap tightly in plastic and refrigerate.

While the butter is firming up, turn the dough out onto a floured table and roll into an 11-inch square. Unwrap the butter and place in the center of the dough arranged so it looks like a diamond atop a larger square. Pull the edges of the dough around the butter and pinch to seal shut.

Flip the dough, seam-side down, on a lightly floured surface and roll into a long rectangle, about 8 by 24 inches. Fold the dough into thirds, as you would a letter, brushing off any excess flour. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for about 45 minutes.

Place the rectangle of dough seam-side down on the floured table and repeat the rolling and folding process. Refrigerate for another 45 minutes.

For the third time, roll and fold. Wrap well (it will rise a little, so make sure it has some wiggle room) and refrigerate overnight.

Day Three
On a lightly floured table, roll the dough into a very long rectangle, this time 8 by 44 inches. (Partway through, if the rolling gets too difficult, lightly fold the dough, wrap in plastic, and return to the refrigerator to relax a bit.)

Using a ruler, snip the dough every five inches along the top side. For the bottom side, measure in 2½ inches, snip, and then snip every five inches until you get to the end. Using the ruler to keep your line steady, and a pizza cutter or knife for cutting, cut the dough on the diagonal, snip to snip, into sideways rectangles (or whatever they’re called). Go back through, cutting each rectangle in half to make long, skinny triangles.

Before rolling the croissant, make a ½ - inch slash in the wide end of the dough, in order to help the dough curve around in the appropriate semi-circle. Roll the dough, from the snipped, wide end to the point. Place the croissants on a parchment-lined baking sheet, the narrow tip on the underside. Pull the two ends together, gently pinching them together in the front of the croissant — or not. It doesn’t really matter.

Beat the egg with a teaspoon of water and brush over the tops of the croissants. Allow them to rise for an hour and a half. They don’t puff up that much, but if you jostle the pan, the tops will jiggle. Brush them again with the egg and water mixture.

Now you have two options: bake them straight away, or pop them in the freezer to bake later. They say both methods are fine, but since my best croissants were frozen first and then popped directly into the oven still frozen, I strongly advise you to freeze them. So! Gently slide the tray of twice-brushed and risen croissants into the freezer. After one hour, transfer them to an airtight container and return to the freezer.

To bake, place however many croissants you want on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Let them rest at room temperature for about five to ten minutes. Brush them with a third coat of egg mixture. Bake at 400 degrees (convection bake, baby!) until dark golden brown all over, about 25-30 minutes.

Cool to room temperature before devouring.

For a killer breakfast, cut in half lengthwise and stuff with salty ham.

For chocolate croissants: place some chopped chocolate (chips, or whatever you have) on the wide end of the triangle before rolling.

This same time, years previous: in praise of the local arts, science lessons, the quotidian (12.14.15), hot chocolate mix, soft cinnamon sugar butter bars. cracked wheat pancakes, cranberry white chocolate cookies.

Monday, December 10, 2018

the quotidian (12.10.18)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
everyday; ordinary; commonplace

Mornings when I write, they fend for themselves just fine.


For creme pat, followed the recipe exactly and still, way too thick: what gives?

With whipping cream, salvaged.

Choirboy selfie.

Baby thrills.

Deer eyeballs: for science class dissection .



This same time, years previous: when the dress-up ballgown finally fits, welcoming the stranger, yeasted streusel cake with lemon glaze, Italian wedding soup, in my kitchen (sort of): 4:15 p.m., stuffing, pimento cheese spread, winter quinoa salad, peanut butter cookies.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

my sweet beast

Well hello there, m’lovies. It’s been awhile.

This morning I made a pot of coffee for me, my husband, and our older son. But then my husband noticed that coffee was spilling all over the counter, none of it going in the pot. So he tossed the whole grainy mess, washed out the pot, fixed the do-hickey spout thing that our older son had put in backwards — SON! — and started again.

But, same thing. All the coffee ended up on the outside of the pot.

So he tossed that, too, and then we all blearily scrutinized the evil machine, trying to figure out how we were to get the coffee to go where it was supposed to. And then my husband figured out that another do-hickey (how many do-hickeys does one coffee pot need, pray tell?) was flipped up instead of down.

This time, though, instead of brewing yet another a pot of coffee right away, I insisted on running a half cup of water through, just to be sure everything went where it was supposed to go. It did, so then I made several more cups of water, just to be sure. And then my husband flipped because What? Still no coffee?

But I didn’t much care about his flipping because I’d already made my own cup with my aeropress and was happily sipping away while flipping the pancakes on my new stove.

That’s right, people. I have a new stove! 

Or rather: I HAVE A NEW STOVE!!! !!!!!!! !!!! !!!!!!!!!!! !! !! !!!!!!!!!!!! !!!! !!!!!!!!! ! !! !!!!! !! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

(FYI, that’s me happy-ventilating.)

Remember that post where I asked you all for stove advice? You were great — so much useful advice! — and after reading all your comments and doing a bunch of research, I actually pretty much settled on the stove I was going to get. But then we decided to volunteer in Puerto Rico for a few months, and no income meant no purchases which meant, sob, no stove.

When we got back home, my rinky-dink borrowed, but still functional, electric stove of thirteen years began to throw me some curveballs. The oven door stopped closing all the way. The big burner occasionally refused to downshift out of high gear. One of the small burners tipped violently so my kettles would slide off. None of it was critical. Just, I had a feeling the end times were drawing nigh. If I wanted to be proactive, not reactive, I'd best get on with it.

I plunged back into research. My husband and I drove to actual stores, checking out our options. We read reviews and watched sales. After a lot of mature, very adult-like (and decidedly unlike us) consideration, we finally settled on this one, but from Costco (and no longer available).

Last Thursday, after a two-week wait, it arrived, finally.

My husband stayed up late that night to install it...

And in the morning when I woke up, there it was, my new best friend.

Except currently we’re not besties just yet. More like wary acquaintances. No longer can I just waltz into my kitchen and bang pots and pans all over the place, oh no no no. This stove is far too serious for that. It’s big and solid, intimidatingly so. It’s something to be reckoned with, something to be considered.

Today, with snow in the forecast, I took a day off from my normal write-and-run routine in exchange for a baking marathon. While I'd been using the stove on a daily basis (we do have to eat, after all), it'd been sort of tentative, just a little here and there, as necessary. It was high time, I decided, I quit tiptoeing around the beast and actually got down to the business of figuring out how this thing worked.

There were those pancakes first off, and then I roast a couple butternuts and some brussel sprouts. The butternuts refused to get brown and I sort of freaked for a little there — What good is an oven that doesn’t brown vegetables? Oh no! I'M GOING TO HAVE TO SEND THE WHOLE THING BACK AND START OVER AGAIN, wahhhh! — but then I kept playing around. I tried the broiler. I cranked up the heat. I experimented between “convection roast” and “convection bake” and regular “bake.” I swapped trays. In the end, the butternuts got beautifully caramelized (whew), and then the brussel sprouts blackened gorgeously, and fast.

Now, as I type, I have French chocolate granola toasting. Next up is a cranberry walnut crostata, and then a loaf of ciabatta for supper, to go with our roasted veggies.

The enormous — no, cavernous — oven really is out-of-this-world dreamy. Convection bake is incredible: I love, love, love being able to pop things into the oven at any level, and pies and pastries and bread bake up a gorgeous golden brown. The proof setting is sweet, and I haven’t even gotten around to experimenting with time bake. With space for seven racks (ordering a couple more is on my to-do list), I haven’t even come close to maxing out the oven’s potential. It’s a real workhorse, a beast, rawr.

But you wanna know the very best part? The big glass door and the oven light!

You know how in The Great British Baking Show the contestants often kneel on the floor in front of the oven to anxiously watch their bakes? Well, that's me now! I CAN DO THAT. I can squat on the floor and watch things bubble and sizzle, brown and rise, to my heart’s content. Such thrills!

Not everything is perfect, of course. The oven puts out a lot of heat. As in, the kitchen’s temperature shoots up an easy two or three degrees every time I bake. This is fine in brr-cold weather, but in the muggy summer heat, I’m afraid it’s going to be wretched. I paged back through the stove reviews to see if I overlooked some critical complaints, but a preliminary skimming didn’t reveal any comments regarding this issue. Am I the only one bothered by tremendous heat output?

Also, certain burners don’t seem to get hot enough, and others don’t go low enough. In fact, I don’t feel like the burner flames have much variation at all. But maybe I just have to get used to them?

I keep telling myself to stop panicking over every little glitch. There's gotta be a reason the stove has nearly five solid stars. Plus, I’ve been a good twenty-some years with an electric stove, so it only stands to reason that a fire-breathing monster is going to take some getting used to.

I'll get the hang of it. In no time at all, that stove and I will be BFFs. Just you watch.

This same time, years previous: books and movies, by a thread (if you need a laugh), writing: behind the scenes, in the sweet kitchen, oatmeal sandwich bread, nanny-sitting, the college conundrum, Thanksgiving of 2013, sushi!!!, baked ziti.