Saturday, September 3, 2011

My Nemesis has been Defeated!

Yes, my nemesis. I have enemies. Enemies in the form of crispy on the outside, doughy and fluffy on the inside, wonderfully airy goodness that is the French Baguette.

Funny story.

I have always been an avid baker. Three tier cakes? No problem. Fondant covered cupcakes? Piece of cake (no pun intended). French macaroons? Maybe a little on the meringue-y side, but still tantalizing. Bread? Serious issues. Every time I've tried to make bread, it ends up being too dense, too sweet, too doughy, just straight tastes like matted flour, or has overly-activated yeast. Regardless of the pains I've taken to ensure these things don't happen, they do.

I still try and try and in turn, fail and fail, but not THIS time!

Wait. I'm not communicating this to you correctly. Perhaps if I explain my last mishap.

It was before I'd left for France, and I wanted desperately to make baguette before I embarked on my journey. I'd also had a burning desire to try out a baguette recipe Shad's mother gave me around Thanksgiving last year. Well, it was more like I stalked her in the kitchen and wrote down her every move.

Now, you must understand, my mother-in-law is a Sage. She can just make things happen, like unforgettable bread or raising eight children. She's Wonder Woman without the annoying headband. Basically, she just waved her wooden spoon around, kneaded some magical dough and Voila! Bread that was smelled by everyone in a 5 mile radius and was in turn, devoured in under 15 minutes.

I tried the recipe I had written down, and my wonder of her grew further, as mine did NOT turn out like hers. It was a horrid, gooey mess that refused to stiffen, regardless of the immense amounts of flour I'd added. Finally, I turned to my then-roommate and decided to just plop the hideous blob on the baking sheet to see what happened.

It was dense. A baguette is supposed to be airy, and fluffy inside, heavy and crunchy outside. This was not the case. It was a slightly sweet brick that tasted more like hardened flour than anything else. We threw it away, and I hung up my apron strings on bread for a while.

Which brings me to today. I woke up to the first full day I've had off Aside from my husband and dog to feed, I had no obligations of any kind. I confess to be a masochistic workaholic at this point in my life. Three places of employment and full-time student. Bah.

In honor of this day, I decided that I needed to bake something. I had found a decent recipe, that did not call for a bread machine or mixer of any kind a few months ago. Legit, handmade bread. The disastrous results of my previous attempts and subsequently wounded ego had left me feeling skittish about trying to make an edible, cereal based fluff ball.

I felt gumption today, though, and tried my hand at it. I measured carefully and followed the directions to a T, praying that it would work. Granted, including all of the rising time, this particular recipe takes about 5 hours to make. It better had been good!

I was terrified that I'd ruined it right at the beginning, as I'd put the yeast mixture in too small a bowl, and ended up transferring it into a larger one. This is almost the same way that I'd over-activated the yeast last time, but I pressed on, setting it to rise and bubble.

Adding the rest of the flour mixture, my hands and fingers became covered in the beer-like smelling goo, as I kneaded and kneaded. It was still fairly sticky when I oiled the bowl and heaped the mass into it. Setting the dishcloth over it, the hour passed by quickly, as I had a friend visiting, and we kneaded it once more and laid the three twists on the baking sheet.

We rigged a tent-like towel structure over the pan to prevent any dive-bombing flies or gnats from tainting the perfection that was the dough thus far. With that, we went grocery shopping and ended up letting the three rise for closer to an hour than 20 minutes. Again, I was terrified that I'd ruin the batch and humiliate myself, yet again.

However, they looked uneven and beautiful when we returned, so I quickly heated the oven and brushed the three with olive oil. Popping the pan in the oven, I filled a bowl with water to provide the moisture. Problem. They wouldn't fit together, I finally shifted the dishes around to make them fit enough for the oven door to shut. The entire first 15 minutes consisted of me pacing and pleading to the Kitchen Goddess to protect my oven and keep the glass bowl from exploding.

The time came to remove the bowl and decide what to make for dinner to accompany the bread, should it turn out well. After wrestling over a decision between pastas, I decided against both, as that would be a LOT of starch all at once.

I decided to just cut up a heap of fresh vegetables I'd had in the fridge and had just bought at the store and serve them up in pesto olive oil. I set to work, flavoring the oil with fresh garlic cloves, heaping the half-wilted spinach leaves into the oil with half a spoonful of my homemade pesto.

A green bell pepper and three medium sized tomatoes with dashes of sea salt, black pepper, oregano, and cucumber slices finished the dish. I poured the concoction in a bowl and pulled the bread out of the oven. It smelled divine, though wasn't much to regard.

"Listen," my friend said tapping the top of one of the baguettes with her fingernail. My heart soared as it sounded nearly hollow. Perfect.

Mouths watering, we all sat around the display. I fetched the beautiful new bottle of Balsamic vinegar, without which I could absolutely not live and a spoon for the veggie concoction. I'm not sure what to call it. Vegetarian's Delight? Italian Hodge-Podge? Wanna Be Bruschetta?

We began heaping the topping in our bowls and breaking the bread. Moment of truth. I soaked a large piece in the oil, without any vegetable topping, as I wanted the bread's taste to be clear. It was delicious. Simply put. Delicious.

I've been on the hunt for good baguette since my return, and I've concluded that I'll just have to do it myself. We ate greedily and afterward, I sat back to digest my triumph.

I've conquered bread. It will never humiliate me again. Muahaha! 


Recipe for Vegetarian's Delight or Italian Hodge-Podge:

You need:

3 medium sized tomatoes
1/2-1 cup of olive oil (depends on whether you want more of a focus on the oil or the vegetables)
1/2 tsp. oregano
2 cloves of garlic
1 tbsp. pesto
1/2 tsp. salt
pinch of pepper
1/2-1 cucumber
1 green bell pepper
3 cups fresh spinach leaves

1.) In a medium skillet, heat the olive oil on medium high. Peel and whack the garlic cloves and brown them in the oil.

2.) Wilt spinach leaves in the oil, reduce heat to medium or medium low and add the pesto. Be careful, as the water in the leaves will cause them to pop and spit in the oil.

3.) Dice and slice the rest of the vegetables and place them in the pan. (I like to do tomatoes last, as they retain their shape better when cooked over a shorter period of time.)

4.) Use tongs or a spatula to rotate the mixture.

5.) Sprinkle the remaining seasonings over the mixture and continue mixing and rotating.

6.) When all looks cooked, remove from heat, and either serve immediately with fresh baguette and optional balsamic vinegar or cover and place in fridge for a tasty cold salad dish.

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