.A Hot Meal, a Warm Kitchen .. Harvest is Over and Winter is Near.
(c) 2014, Davd
Home-made bread, baked potatoes, and roast beef: That’s a fine dinner for when you have time to enjoy it at leisure; and to me enjoying it at leisure means at home—mine or a friend’s—not in a “restaurant” where “your table” isn’t your own and the management wants to keep it actively making income. Not in a restaurant from which you have to drive home—and the Law demands, drive home cold sober. Enjoying a good red wine with this fine meal, should not threaten you with a criminal record, nor tax you with a cab fare more costly than the meal.
(It’s a shame, really, that we rural men can’t just go home from a fine dinner with wine, in a horse drawn carriage [or even a mere wagon] and be able to tell any cop who stops us, “but the horse is sober, and the reins are tied around the railing. He’s driving, not me; he knows the way home ….”)
I began making bread at least 40 years ago. I think i’ve made all my own bread for two years or longer. (I’m not flat certain of that; i might have bought a loaf or two of rye bread in the past two years, and somebody did give me a bag of ciabatta buns last year—are those bread or not?—but for the most part, the overwhelmingly most part—the bread i eat is baked in my own kitchen. In the summer, i make “frybread”, usually the kind that is called flour tortillas or chapatis, because having the oven on at a fairly high heat for an hour or so, isn’t welcome when the house is already more than warm enough.)
September, sometimes October is when the baking resumes after the heat of summer: I bake long-rise bread in the shape most often called French or Italian. It has more flavour than most store bread—it’s really good with butter or good margarine, and nothing more. I often have it with garlic-margarine, which is easy to make at home. It can be made with white or whole-wheat flour; i suggest starting with unbleached “white” flour because it’s easier to learn with.
(Whole wheat produces a smaller, denser loaf that’s a little more nourishing and at least as tasty [to me, anyway], but the rises tend to take longer. There’s not as much “leeway”, to make the dough wait while you do something else. When you’ve made a dozen or so batches of white bread, i suggest you give whole wheat a try. It’s heartier, and for instance seems to me to make better ham sandwiches—even peanut butter and jam sandwiches—but i like white bread better with garlic butter. Rye bread?—rye dough is very sticky, and hard to work; so it’s something to tackle only when you have more experience and plenty of kitchen time for the dough.)
’round about the time that the Frost Warnings start to appear in the weather forecasts, is when the idea of a hot electric oven just before dinner time becomes pleasant again, and will stay pleasant until mid-late spring. It’s time to thaw a beef roast [in the fridge], or buy one if there’s a good price on offer. It’s time to get out the big Bread Bowl the next morning after breakfast, or that evening if i want dinner at mid-day, and do a little over half an hour’s work, spread over 10-20 hours time, to produce one of the best dinners a beef eating man can eat.
The timing is worth repetition: If you’re thawing a frozen roast—and frozen beef, protected from the air, can be excellent for roasting when thawed—put it to thaw the morning of the day before you plan to cook it. The bread dough, using my long-rising technique, should be started late in the evening of the day before it’s baked, or in the morning right after breakfast; so by the time you start the bread, the beef roast should be partly thawed but still not completely (unless, of course, it’s one you just recently bought.)
For this technique, the best roast thickness is a generous 3 inches [7-8 cm]. Stores in the Francophone villages near here often cut “roasts” as thin as 4 cm [barely 1½ inches] and any thickness less than 6 cm [a scant 2½ inches] is likely to come out “well done” all the way through. I prefer medium rare, and 3 inches or a little thicker, gives me a roast that is red inside but not bloody. My favourite cut is sirloin; round will roast well also; “strip loin” is tender but more expensive, it tends to have more fat “marbled” in the meat, and the few times i’ve tried it, it didn’t have as much flavour as sirloin. Chuck [sometimes called blade] should be cooked moist, and more slowly; it’s the natural pot roast.
With the beef part-way thawed, sitting in the ‘fridge which is the best place to thaw meat, and a big bowl on some work surface in the kitchen where you can push down hard [and i suggest, don’t use the freezer top because it will tend to be cold] warm up 1 litre [just over one US quart or just less than one UK quart] of water to about body temperature [38-39C, 98-100F]. It can be a little warmer, but if it’s a lot warmer it might kill the yeast. One litre of water will make two big loaves of bread, the shape of French and Italian loaves, that will fit on a single cookie sheet [mine are 40×27 cm in size or about 10½ by 16 inches]. In a compact oven such as i have right now, that cookie sheet leaves just room on the same shelf [wire rack], for a Pyrex glass baking pan that will hold the roast and a couple of potatoes. If you have a big oven, you can try doubling the recipe later; for the first couple of tries, i suggest keeping to two loaves and a roast.
I do mean “big bowl”: Mine is 16″ = 40 cm wide at the top, a little less than half that wide at the bottom, and 6″ = 15 cm high. The one you use should fit in the oven, because in most kitchens the oven will be the best place to put the dough while it’s rising. It should also have plenty of room for the dough to rise. Stainless steel is my favourite material for most kitchen gear, including mixing bowls and cooking pots, and that’s what my big bowl is made of; ceramic or heat-tolerant glass will also do.
When the water is a little above body temperature, pour it in the big bowl. (Water that you saved from cooking pasta will help the dough start rising, by the way, because of the starch suspended in it; but don’t use pasta-cooking water that is turning sour or fermenting—at least, not until you’re ready to try sourdough, which can make delicious bread but can also be very sticky.) Add a generous pinch [half a teaspoon or so] of salt, a teaspoon or two of sugar and of cooking oil, and then mix them all into the water with a big spoon or, if you have one, a whisk. When the oil, salt, and sugar are mixed into the water, add a rounded teaspoon of baker’s yeast. (I buy my yeast in bulk and keep it in the ‘fridge, where it will keep for a year or longer because of the temperature. If you buy yours by the envelope, one envelope should do.) Sprinkle the yeast across the top of the water and let it “proof”, or take up the warm water and begin to come to life. It keeps in the ‘fridge so long, because at ‘fridge temperature, it’s “dormant.”**
The check-list is: Water, salt, sugar, oil, yeast, flour. You can add the salt, sugar, and oil in any order. You can add a wee bit of flour before the yeast, if your big bowl doesn’t have a residue of flour from the last batch of bread; but it probably isn’t necessary and if you used pasta-cooking water it’s definitely not needed. The yeast should go in second-last, the water first, and all but a wee bit of the flour, last… after the yeast has been sprinkled on top of the sugared salted oiled water, and given time to “wake up.”.
While the yeast is softening and waking up, oil your hands with cooking oil, or fat (I suggest not using bacon or ham fat because they have a smoky taste) rubbing it in as you do hand lotion. Cooking oils and fats make good hand lotion, by the way… and for my part, i don’t mind smelling a little like a kitchen. When the oil is rubbed into your skin—you did wash your hands before starting to make the dough, of course—then add a little flour to your hands, and take a measuring cup or a coffee/tea mug for adding flour to the bowl.
(I keep a mug, a narrow bottomed one that looked too easy to tip over if i put tea or coffee in it, in the flour sack; and also, 2-3 bay leaves. The bay leaves repel insects, so the flour won’t get infested; and the mug might as well sit in the flour sack as get washed and dried after each batch of bread, because it is always dry and never touches anything but flour [and maybe the odd bay leaf]. I put the bay leaves on a clean surface while making the dough, and then put them back in the flour bag with the mug when the bread starts to rise as loaves. I close the flour bag with spring clamps—whether they come from an office supply store or a hardware store doesn’t matter as long as they’re clean. Clothes pins aren’t strong enough to hold a 10-kg flour sack closed, though the good ones work OK for a 2 kg sugar bag.)
After 10-20 minutes, the yeast should have expanded from granules to a soft tan covering at the top of the water in the bowl. Now add the flour, a cup or so at a time. As one well known Canadian cookbook put it, you mix the flour and water into a batter [pancakes are fried from the batter consistency] and then by adding more flour, into a dough. A dough is more solid than fluid, but “pliable”: You can work it into a loaf shape, or a cylinder, or a rectangular solid, and it will hold that shape, more or less. If you’ve never made bread dough, it would be a good idea to help somebody who has, the first time you try it; or have somebody experienced come coach you for the dough-making stage.
As the flour-water-yeast-sugar-oil-salt mixture becomes a batter, you’ll notice that the whisk isn’t working as well as a spoon would. Tap the whisk sharply on the edge of the bowl a few times, to shake the batter that clings to it into the bowl; then put it in a can or jar of water to soak, and proceed to stir the batter with a big spoon. As the batter becomes a dough, you’ll notice that the spoon isn’t working as well as you could with your bare hands, so peel the dough off the spoon with those hands, put the spoon with the whisk to soak, and proceed to work the dough to a fairly firm consistency. If there’s a little flour clinging to the bowl, that’s OK; and don’t try to force so much flour into the dough that it starts being “crumbly”. (To repeat: It’s good to have somebody experienced come coach you for the dough-making stage, first time.)
When you’ve got a lump of dough, damp but firm enough to “shape”, in the bowl, shape it into a slightly mounded form, centred in the bottom of the bowl. Sprinkle a wee bit of dry flour on top—less rather than more. Cover it with a clean dry cloth, preferably linen rather than cotton. Put the bowl on top of a cookie sheet, and set them, covered with that cloth, in the oven. Turn the oven on to its lowest heat—less than 150F/60C,—when the light comes on indicating the oven has turned on, that’s enough … and put a tin can or small wide bottom steel bowl, at the bottom of the oven, with an inch or two of water in it so the air where the dough rises is slightly moist. (I prefer the 28-ounce/800ml cans in which i buy tomatoes after my own garden crop runs out.)
Making the dough, for me, is 10-15 minutes of work. Now the yeast goes to work for 3-5 hours, and can work for as long as 8-12, giving the dough its long, first rise. This long rise is part of what makes the bread taste special; and commercial bakeries almost never make long-rising bread because it ties up valuable space for too many hours (and because they don’t want to pay their workers to sit around and wait for a long rise… though maybe they can find the workers other things to do.)
If you started the dough in the evening, you’ll “work it” after the first rise, while making breakfast or right after you eat breakfast. If you started it rising after breakfast, you’ll work it some time after lunch, or perhaps while making lunch. The dough does not need to be worked a long time, in my experience; 5-10 minutes are often enough.
The pattern of “working the dough” is: Fold and press down. When you press down the folded dough, of course it becomes much wider than it is tall, and ready to fold again. Work more slowly rather than in a rush, so the dough can “get itself together” on each fold. You’ll find that while rising, the dough became damper in consistency than when it went into the warm oven; so you’ll add flour—and again, it would be a good idea to help somebody who has made bread for a while, the first time you handle dough; or have somebody experienced come coach you until your first batch of bread starts to bake.
The second rise should take 2-3 hours. When the dough has expanded to at least double its worked-down size, to where you could imagine it shaped into two good-sized loaves, then it’s time to make it into not those ready-to-bake loaves, but worked down into the shapes that will swell into loaves during the final rise.
At each “working”, the dough will take up some more flour. I’m not sure of the scientific reason for that; but i do know that when yeast “eats” sugar [and gradually, yeast converts starch in flour to sugar and “eats” that as well as the little bit of sugar you put in the initial mix], one of the reaction products is—water. Anyway, don’t be surprised when the dough, as you start to work it after the first and second rise, is wetter and stickier than it was when the rise began. Add flour until the consistency is good to work.
When you’ve worked it down at the end of the second rise, you shape it into two loaves [remember, this is based on 1 litre of water and the flour that much water needed, to make good dough]. The loaves should sit crosswise to the longer direction of the cookie sheet, with about twice as much space between them, as between each loaf and the end of the sheet.
Sprinkle a little flour on the cookie sheet before you put the dough-shape on it. Sprinkle a little more flour on top of each loaf. Put the linen cloth on top of the loaves, gently, folded so it covers them pretty well but does not run far beyond any side or end of the metal sheet. Then put the loaves back in the oven, still turned to about as low heat as will still heat at all, for the final rise.
(It is not very important to get the shapes of the loaves “just so.” Bread that tastes good and has its crunchy crust and soft interior, doesn’t really need to have any particular shape. In general, i enjoy loaves that are wider than they are high, biggest-around at the middle of their length, tapering very slightly toward each end until, for the last two inches [5 cm] or so, they form the graceful curved closure shape you know if you see much French and Italian bread.)
Meanwhile, if you don’t have potatoes waiting to be baked, get some from the sack or mound where you keep them for storage, and put them in a small bucket with enough water to cover. After half an hour or longer, the water will have loosened the very thin layer of dirt which it’s good to have on potatoes in storage, but not to eat. Then you can scrub them clean at—let me guess—a rate of two or three per minute… meaning there’s plenty of time to soak and wash potatoes while the loaves are rising, though you can just as well to it earlier. (If you bought potatoes from a store, you probably bought them already washed, and this part of the job will already be done.)
A good baking potato—for these baking conditions—will be up to two inches [5 cm] thick, wider than those two inches, and longer than it is wide. I typically put one such potato at each end of my Pyrex pan, and the beef roast between them, fat side up. If the potatoes push against the beef roast and cause it to stand a little taller in the pan, all the better … unless you have a thicker roast than i usually find in the stores. Pierce the top of each potato at least three times with a fork, four or five won’t hurt. (I find salad forks pierce potatoes more cleanly than many regular forks.)
The loaves are ready to bake when they’ve expanded almost to the size you want them to be when done. (They will expand just a little as they bake.) As with handling the dough, it would be a good idea to have somebody who has made bread several times, help you assess when the loaves are ready to bake, the first time or two.
The old cookbook i started from when i began making my own bread, decades ago, said to bake 50 minutes at 400 F[ahrenheit]. (My oven control is labelled in Fahrenheit, so that’s fine with me.) That temperature and time, i soon learned, cooks a three inch thick roast to a medium rare which i prefer anyway. I usually turn off the oven after about 45 minutes, if the light indicating heating, is off; and if the bread and roast are in the oven a minute or two longer than 50, that should be fine.
When you take the bread out of the oven, put it [still on the cookie sheet] on the stove-top elements, or something that can take heat well above boiling point, and cover the loaves with the same linen cloth. Put the meat and potatoes on a similarly heat-tolerant surface—but in this case, use a wooden board⁂, not metal, because the next and last stage of the cooking process is called “repose”. Cover the meat and potatoes with an upside down baking pan or mixing bowl—whatever’s the right size, clean, and made of thin metal. Glass might crack, a cloth would soak up juice from the meat, and plastic might melt. If the roast is on the thick side or you prefer medium to medium rare, take the bread out first; if you prefer rare or it’s less than three inches thick, take the meat out first.
Let the bread, meat, and potatoes “repose” for about 20 minutes. With the meat pan resting on wood, which doesn’t carry away heat as fast as metal does, as long as half an hour shouldn’t hurt. While the hot food is reposing, have your salad or soup course… or cook the vegetable[s]. Steamed broccoli, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cauliflower; frozen spinach heated just to boiling, or maybe boiled beets or peas, are what i’d choose… but sometimes, if i have lettuce and some tomatoes, i’d make a lettuce and tomato salad. Even carrot-raisin salad goes well with this meal, but i prefer broccoli, spinach, or lettuce-and-tomato salad. (Green beans are good too, steamed with mushrooms; but they’re not likely to be available fresh from the garden when the weather is cold enough for baking bread in the kitchen.)
This meal is worthy of a good red table wine—i prefer Merlot and Pinot Noir, which i make from kits, aged a year or longer. Rather than drink the whole bottle, if you’re eating alone, i recommend you save at least half for when you are enjoying the leftover roast beef.
That’s a good point on which to wind up one of the longest food blogs i’ll write: Like many techniques of cooking i write about, this one produces food enough to serve yourself plus some guests—or to enjoy some mighty fine leftovers. On the day i completed this in first draft, for instance, lunch was leftover baked potatoes with cheese and a little chive… warmed slightly in a frying pan, on low heat, until the cheese on top of them started to melt. Another meal was sliced roast beef and bread that had soaked up the drippings in the glass roasting pan. I don’t remember what the vegetables were, but i did have a deep red home grown apple.
The skills involved in this technique are not difficult to master. It is easier to learn them with an experienced bread maker for your coach, the first time or two; but that’s because they involve subjective observations rather than the kind that can be expressed in numbers: The moistness and texture of dough, the size of loaves when they’re ready to bake—these are things i can’t quantify, and you can’t measure with ordinary kitchen equipment—but you can learn them and it’s not so very difficult. Chili is a little easier to explain in writing, but it too has its “experiential” aspects.
This won’t be my last “Bachelor cooking” blog, but it may be a milestone of sorts: When you can present your guests with roast beef, baked potatoes, and fresh bread for dinner, indeed when you can sit down at your own table and enjoy them alone—and have mastered fish poached in homemade salsa, chicken cacciatore, spiced apple porridge, well-fried meat to go with that porridge, pea soup, homemade pasta sauce, black beans with bay leaf and onion, and the vegetable handling techniques i’ve posted—you’ve achieved a level of cooking such as my father and grandmother, both of them better cooks than my mother, taught me. You’ve probably gained the kitchen confidence any man smart enough to get a trade license, ought to have—and from what i hear this past few years, you’ve become a better cook than most women under 50.
If i think about that a minute, it occurs to me that there’s a conflict between the “job” that Governments have come to brag about “creating”, and good cooking. The hours that i let the yeast work while i do something else, and the minutes i spend working the dough, are available to a [wo]man who works at home, but not to a typical “wage slave” whose employer is miles from his kitchen. I became a regular bread maker while “self employed.” Egad! Perhaps the reason i grew up hearing that women cooked and men didn’t (though in my family, the best cooks were of both sexes) was an artifact of “the heyday of the job”… and if it’s not that simple overall, it is true that a man who goes his own way, alone or with some buddies, can eat well from the work of his own hands.
I mean to continue posting, from time to time, techniques of good cooking with a men’s perspective. There’s one i have almost ready, that’s as easy as this one is complex… so if you’re a pickle eater, and have fridge space, save the brine.
The bottom crust can get thick and rather hard. Doubling the cookie sheet is a trick you can try; but so far, i don’t think it adds as much as it subtracts; and the crust doesn’t get scorched, so much as thick and crunchy. Rarely, if a bit of crust is especially hard, i might give it to my wolfmutt Fritz. He has an impressive, powerful set of teeth.
* I don’t heat the house until the temperature in the main room gets down to 16 or so.
** I know that some yeast is labelled as “instant.” Since that word “instant” doesn’t make biological sense to me, i let the yeast have 10-20 minutes on top of the warm water, to wake up and change form from little granules to a tan soft covering over the water. Then i add the flour.
⁂ Don’t set a baking hot pan on a plastic cutting board, or a plastic table or counter top. It might even stink enough, melting, to spoil the taste of the food. A cutting board, or a scrap of plywood or board from the workshop, ought to work safely, and leave the roast and potatoes at eating temperature rather than too cold, after 20-30 minutes. (This is one reason i use a Pyrex glass baking pan for the roast and potatoes. Another is that it doesn’t scorch their bottoms while baking as metal might do.)