Middle Eastern Dough Molds...Baking Inspiration

My good friend Jenny spotted these dough molds up at the Forest Hill Antique Market yesterday for $12 a piece, and texted me a pic saying they reminded her of me. (How sweet!) And yes, they are indeed right up my alley. Yesterday  I was pretty much bed-ridden with aches and pains associated with this head cold. Today I feel much better thanks, in part I'm sure, to Ron's fantastic soup! (see below). First thing in the A.M. i headed out to procure these darling dough machines-of-old, not quite sure what they were and how to use them.

Oh, Google, how i love thee.

Seems they are hand-carved dough molds, specifically used in the Middle East for cookies and sweets such as date, pistachio and walnut stuffed Ma'mouls or Maamouls. Oh, goody goody gumdrops; something new to try! And, wouldn't you believe it? They are traditionally served at the Islamic holiday signifying the end of Ramadan or the Hajj which is just around Easter, or in my book, SPRING EQUINOX, which is coincidentally right around the corner. Now i just need to head out to my nearest Middle East/Indopak market for some dates and pistachios and research some nom nom recipes.

I am also harassing my friends who own a local bakery to see if they want to join up for this adventure. I'll offer free hands, molds, photos and publicity through my blog and their site. I'm picturing a drawing to win a spot for you and a friend to learn how to make and bake traditional Ma'mouls and celebrate Spring with the bakery staff, plus a half dozen ma'mouls to take with... Stay tuned for more!

Mashed Potato + Gravy Soup

So...I've had a slight head cold the past few days, which, over the last decade, has been as bad as it gets in terms of my personal wellness, and i feel blessed and thankful despite this stuffy nose, post-nasal drip, and dry, irritated throat. (Ron's alternative health book Radical Healing by Rudolph Ballentine, M.D. says the common cold is a form of emotional and spiritual "cleansing" and post-nasal drip is "internal crying.") After the emotional havoc of this Virgo full moon, and a pressure-releasing massage by Lily Lamberta of Radical Healing Massage, I am in the process of cleansing a lot of stuff right now. And, let's just say, that this stuff causing an uncomfortable pressure in my neck, head and jaw needs to come out! Adios negativity! To the rubbish heap with you outdated beliefs!

Ron, always ready to play the feminine role of caretaker, has been ever-present refilling the tea kettle, popping out goldenseal/echinacea pills, and  making emergency runs to the pharmacy for tissues. I do not take OTC meds, but prefer to heal myself with herbs, rest, plenty of fluids, and energy work/meditation. Oh, and good food. Ron has taken care of this latter necessity as well. He disappears for an hour or two, and leftovers, whey and stock are magically re-purposed into hearty soups, and this one tops the cake! He says it is his best one yet; I would have to agree. It is a roasted garlic potato soup, and it tastes just like mashed potatoes and gravy, that is, if you like your potatoes garlic-y and spiced with chilies, and your gravy infused with fresh sage. We do!

You see? Garlic....Chili...we're trying to kick this cold's butt!

Ingredients (yields 4 servings)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 large russet potato, 1/2" cubed
  • 3 large new potatoes, 1/2" cubed
  • 1 head of garlic, unpeeled
  • 4 dried chilies
  • A handful of fresh sage
  • ~2 quarts vegetable stock and/or whey (we used a combination) (adjust more or less with water)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper to taste

First, start roasting the garlic. Slice the top (not the root side) off of the unpeeled garlic head. Place it root-side down in a saute pan over medium-low heat. Cover and roast until garlic is nice and mushy. Several sites, blogs and recipes use the oven to roast garlic, like the incomparable Martha and Joy the Baker. But for just one head, we prefer this stove-top method which saves a bunch of energy and doesn't take as long. You also don't need any olive oil or s&p since we'll be adding it to soup.

Meanwhile, dice the onion and saute it in the bottom of a large stock pot with the olive oil. Once onions are translucent, add the cubed carrot and potatoes (we clean well, and keep the skins on for added nutrients and texture) and saute for an additional 2 minutes. Then add the stock and/or whey until the potatoes are just covered, or more if you like a thinner soup.

We use our homemade vegetable stock, which we make bi-weekly from compost and table scraps. (I will share this method soon.) This time, we had a gallon of whey leftover from my successful adventures in cheese making (ooey, gooey mozzarella!). We made the veggie stock with the whey, and what was unused from this week's other soups made it into the pot, along with some additional whey (you can use water to fill) to cover the veggies. Then, add your spices: your bay leaves (i foraged mine from the San Jose mountains), sage, chilies and salt and pepper. If your garlic is finished roasting, pop the cloves from the peel and place in the pot.

Bring the soup to a boil, cover and reduce heat and simmer for about an hour. Pour the chunky mixture into a food processor or blender (or use an immersion blender if you are lucky enough to own one!) and blend and pulse and blend some more until smooth and creamy. You can add more water, whey or stock at this point if you want it thinner, too.

Seriously, it tastes just like mashed potatoes and gravy, but probably a lot healthier (no cream, no butter). Now it just needs to be topped with some crispy, fried onions and served alongside some crusty bread and brussel sprouts and you've got a creamy, comfort meal!


Spicy Homemade Marinara

As promised, to accompany the rosemary focaccia, I am making my spicy homemade marinara with plenty of garlic and hot pepper flakes and oregano to wake up your senses. Paired with the rosemary in the focaccia, this marinara will come alive in your mouth and make you beg for more. While store-bought marinara and pasta sauces have their perks of ease (open can - pour - heat - serve), homemade marinara is only a few steps more (dice - add spices - blend - heat - serve), made even quicker in the tomato off-season by canned diced tomatoes. Though there is nothing that can compare to straight-out-of-the-garden, ripe tomatoes in summer. If you can afford the extra 5 minutes of chopping, do!

I make prepping the ingredients a meditation, and try to be really present, enjoying each click of the knife blade on wood, and admiring the pretty piles of chopped ingredients that will soon join each other in molecular matrimony. I get to pick fresh parsley from my herb garden and breathe in their aroma as i chop them up to bits. The most time consuming part of any tomato sauce is the slow-simmering which takes upwards of several hours (only 30 minutes or so in this recipe) but really helps the flavors bloom.

For the most part, you can walk away from the stove and let it do it's thang, which is my slang for letting the magic of cooking happen or the bio-chemical reactions on a molecular level take place.

I use Muir Glen's organic diced tomatoes. Their manifesto claims their tomatoes make it "from field to can in eight hours or less to lock in flavor," and this is right up my alley. While they did take the cross-continent journey from Sacremento, CA to Richmond, VA to end up on my plate, I am only just beginning my experiences in home-canning. Tackling tomatoes, after this year's Hanover Tomato Festival in July, will be my next canning adventure (and you'll get to hear all about it later this summer!).

Ingredients (yields approx. 3 cups)
  • 28 oz can diced tomatoes, or 1 1/2 pounds of fresh tomatoes, diced
  • 10 oz can tomato paste
  • 4 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons crushed chili flakes (reduce by half for less heat)
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, roughly chopped
  • 1 cup yellow onion, diced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1/3 cup of vermouth (or white wine)

Begin by preparing all the diced ingredients. Add all but the last three ingredients to a food processor and pulse until well-blended and a texture you like. Heat up the oil in a 3 quart sauce pan under medium-high heat and add the onions. Once the onions are translucent, pour in the vermouth and cook for 1 minute. Add the tomato mixture. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve warm with sliced focaccia bread sticks or refrigerate for up to 1 week for use over pasta or polenta.

I sliced my focaccia into 1 1/2 inch strips and then in half down the middle to make dip-able breadsticks for the party.

Look at that spongy texture!

I'm gonna have a hard time waiting until 7 p.m. ...


Rosemary Focaccia

Tomorrow night I will be attending my first Oscar Party, hosted by my dear friend and former film crew colleague, Christina. It is low-key, potluck style affair and i am planning on bringing rosemary focaccia with a marinara dip (see tomorrow's post). I have a very strong feeling that most of the actual awards show will be missed as we opt instead to gab, cackle and nosh. We'll probably catch a bit of the red carpet fashions and then cheer on our Richmond-filmed top choices (ahem, Lincoln for best picture, Spielberg for Best Director, Daniel Day Lewis for Best Actor and Sally Field for Best Supporting...), but i know that i will be hanging around the food table taste-testing all the homemade hors d'oeuvres.

Focaccia is a popular Italian flat-bread and my second favorite style bread (after a crusty sourdough boule) and one of the reasons i adore it is the pizza like toppings that are often baked into the top: thin slices of farm-fresh tomatoes, chopped kalamata olives, slivers of caramelized onions. And always topped off with plenty of olive oil and salt. In my more busy days, a slice of focaccia and a chunk of cheese was a common meal-on-the-go.

Today we'll be going the more traditional route and finishing the focaccia with fresh rosemary. The accompanying marinara will be spiced with a blend of Mediterranean herbs (basil, rosemary, parsley) to complement the herbaceous flat bread. Mouth-watering, Mediterranean mayhem!

Focaccia Ingredients (yield 1 loaf)
  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1 cup white wheat flour
  • 1 cup whey (we had some leftover from making mozzarella, but you can substitute water)
  • 1 packet (2 1/4 teaspoons) of active dry yeast
  • a couple pinches of sugar (to help activate the yeast)
  • 1 teaspoon of salt 
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
Toppings (to taste)
  • coarse sea alt 
  • fresh rosemary
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • splash or spritz of water

You'll want to "proof "the yeast in warm whey (or water) first. (For more details on proofing and kneading, follow my step-by-step directions on basic bread-baking on my Walnut Bread post here.) Once the yeast has bloomed, add the flour and salt. Mix until well-incorporated and the dough starts pulling off the side of the bowl. (This is where the method shifts a bit from the Walnut Bread recipe...) Pour the dough onto a cutting board doused with extra virgin olive oil (not flour). Wash the bowl and set aside, then knead the dough in the olive oil for several minutes (5-8) to work the gluten. Add about a tablespoon of olive oil to the cleaned bowl. Roll the dough in the oil until well coated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a cotton towel and set in a warm spot or a pre-heated 100˚F oven for about an hour until the dough has roughly doubled in size. Meanwhile, thoroughly and evenly oil a baking pan using your fingers or a pastry brush.

Just look at those gluten strands!

The dough, after the first rise, will be very sticky and gluten-y. (This is what you want!) Transfer the dough to the prepared pan and spread out the dough evenly using a quick back and forth and up and down finger-pressing method. (Kinda like making pizza dough.)

The dough will "fight back" a bit, but keep working it and quickly pressing the dough outwards and it will retain it's new pan-shape. When spread out, the dough should be between 1/4 and 1/3 inch think.

For the second rise, we place the pan on top of the stove since the first-rising oven temperatures have heated the area nicely. Cover the dough and let rise for another 25-30 minutes. Pre-heat the oven to ~425˚F.

Once the dough is finished rising the second time, dimple the dough with your finger tips. These tiny crevasses with catch the olive oil and give focaccia it's signature pot-holed texture.

Generously coat with rosemary and coarse sea salt. Splash or spritz with a little bit of water (which will help make a hard crust) and pop in the pre-heated oven for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Once out of the oven, drizzle with more olive oil. Simply break chunks off with your hands (that's how we do it!) or slice with a bread knife. Best enjoyed while it's still warm from the oven.


Reasons To Love A Rainy Day

  • tea and cookies
  • rubber boots in puddles; splashing
  • rubber boots in mud; squishing
  • being curled up with a good book
  • rainbow hunting
  • sleeping in
  • contemplation/meditation
  • an excuse for a long, hot bath
  • staying indoors cleaning, rearranging and generally making a happy home
  • drip-drops, pitter-patters and ting-tings of rain falling
  • how wood looks wet
  • happy plants 

Walnut Bread

In my opinion, there are only two aromas more pleasant than baking bread: roasting red peppers and sauteing garlic and onions. But since peppers aren't in season yet and the latter is already a nightly occurrence in this household thanks to Ron's Italian heritage, we are baking bread to suffuse the home with indescribable pleasantries.

We've been baking often in the past couple months, up to a loaf every week, but every single time that dough ball hits the heat of the oven, and the savory, yeasty perfume wafts into the living room from the kitchen, I am transported back to a another era. Breaking into the warm crust straight from the oven, i feel like a peasant in prayer over her weekly sustenance. Yes, give us today our daily bread, please. Gratitude abounds for the simple chemical miracle of flour, yeast and water.

We received a beautiful jar of walnut oil from my sister for Christmas and have leftover chopped walnuts from my valentine Hazelnut truffles with Bailey's so we are going to make Walnut Bread. This bread is moist and nutty with a pleasant savory aftertaste thanks to the onions. A perfect addition to any meal. Eat it unadorned, with a slab of herbed butter or use it to sop up your favorite soup. With several risings, homemade bread can be time consuming, so plan on starting no later than noon, in order to serve with dinner.

Ingredients  (yield: 1 loaf)
  • 2 cups milk (we used almond milk, but you can also substitute soy, hemp, rice, etc.)
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 32 grams of active dry yeast (we use Fleischmann's All Natural Active Dry Yeast)
  • 1/2 cup walnut oil (and another tablespoon for the first rising)
  • 5 cups flour (we used 1 cup of whole wheat and 4 cups of white wheat, but you can use any combination)
  • 1 tablespoon salt and another dash for sprinkling before baking
  • 3/4 cup chopped onions (white onions preferred, but as you can see, we used red since that is what we had on hand)
  • 1/2 cup roughly chopped walnuts
  • Water to spritz
Warm up the milk and sugar in a small sauce pan to ~100˚ F.  (No thermometer? Dip in your finger. It should feel like a warm, not hot, bath.) Stir to dissolve the sugar. Once warmed, pour mixture into a large mixing bowl, then add the yeast which will begin to proof/bloom or, in other words, "get foamy." This step, called "proofing," is necessary for the yeast to activate. An instant yeast, which you can add directly to the flour mixture, is available on the market, but we find that the outcome is less predictable and thus prefer proofing ourselves.

While the yeast is doin' its thang, preheat the oven to 100˚ F. We will rise the bread in this oven (since it is a chilly winter day here at the Wolf Den) and are going for an 85˚ oven temp. when the bread finally goes in. Once yeast mixture is completely foamy, add the oil, flour and salt making sure that the salt does not come into direct contact with the yeast (it will "kill" the yeast.) Ron makes a little bowl inside the flour for the salt (see below).

Mix well until it forms a ball and collects off the sides of the bowl. Dump out onto a floured cutting board. We like marble; it is less likely to get "flavored" by uses as a cutting board like wood, and is easy to clean, but granite or stainless steel work just as well. You'll also see further down why we prefer a stone surface over wood. Wash the mixing bowl and set aside for re-use.

Knead the dough into a firm ball, about 5-7 minutes. (New to kneading? Watch this video tutorial on Youtube by Epicurious to work on your technique. It is actually easier than you think. "It is a feeling thing," Ron says, and once you master the skill, you will no longer be daunted by the task and thus relegated to no-knead recipes.) Add about a tablespoon of oil into the bottom of your cleaned mixing bowl. Add the dough and roll around so all sides are covered with oil (this will prevent the dough from drying out and getting a hard crust.) Using your fingers, gently press the ball into the bowl.

Layer with plastic wrap and then a cotton towel and place in the preheated oven. Let it rise (usually about 90 minutes) until the dough doubles in size. Meanwhile measure out and chop onions and walnuts; we will knead them into the dough after the first rising. Once doubled in size, take the dough out of the oven and uncover. Voila, magic!

Collapse the loaf by gently "punching" the dough (basically slowly inserting your first into the center of the gaseous blob) then fold the edges over towards the center. 

Transfer the dough to a unfloured cutting board. (If you are using wood you'll probably need a little flour to prevent sticking, but just beware that at this point you don't really want to be adding that much flour to the mix.) Dimple the ball using your fingers to flatten.

Pour out half of the chopped onion and half of the walnuts onto the dough.
Fold in each edge and knead the dough.

Once incorporated, add in the remaining onion and walnuts and repeat until fully incorporated.  
Note: Knead it as little as possible to get the items incorporated; you don't want to over-knead or work the dough too much at this point; 3 or 4 folds should be enough. Once onions and walnuts are mixed throughout the dough, shape dough into a ball, folding in edges on the underside to make a smooth, round ball.

Add a generous sprinkling of semolina onto a pizza board and place the dough in the center. Cover with a cotton towel and set in a warm spot for the second rise (about 60 minutes). Preheat the oven to 375-400˚F. Once the dough has plumped up a bit, gently run a knife across the top in an X pattern. Spritz with water and sprinkle with salt.

Slide the dough onto a baking pan or pizza stone and pop into the oven.
Bake for 25-35 minutes until a golden-brown, hard crust is formed.
Place on a cooling rack and let cool for at least 20 minutes.


Hazelnut Truffles with Bailey's

This Valentine's Day, since both Ron and I are (purposefully and strategically) unemployed, we're going the handmade, low-budget route. Our latest obsession seems to be food, food, and more food, so we're whipping up something special for each other. While he is in the kitchen knocking out our dinner of shrimp scampi with handmade fettuccini, I'm sharing my culinary success with you: Hazelnut Truffles with Bailey's. Delicious, decadent and indulgent, and this coming from a anti-sweet-tooth who prefers fruity snacks over chocolate (What!?) I know.

This is a first for me. From the research I did, handmade truffles were supposed to be easy and simple (the way i like it), and indeed they were! Plus, the finished product rivals the store-bought counterparts in taste and appearance at a fraction of the cost. Double, no, triple bonus! Simply anyone can do this.

mmmm...hazelnutty yummy goodness...just try NOT to lick the spoon!

I adapted this luscious recipe from My Baking Addiction blog, substituting crushed walnuts for the hazelnuts and Bailey's Irish Creme for the Frangelico. You can adapt this as well with the nuts and liqueur you have on hand. Try a dark rum, or St. Germaine perhaps. How about crushed pecans or almond slivers? The only thing i would have added would have been some sea salt to the nut mixture for a little savory pop or rolling them in cocoa powder before the nuts to counter the sweetness of the Bailey's.

Ingredients (yields 20-24 truffles)
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 10 ounces of semi-sweet chocolate (chopped fine or morsels) [You could use a high-end brand like Ghiradelli's or Baker's, but the Nestle semi-sweet morsels worked well for us in this recipe, and i had a coupon!]
  • 1/2 cup Nutella
  • optional 3 tablespoons Bailey's liqueur (or liqueur of your choice)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped walnuts (or nut of your choice)

First, get the water in a double boiler simmering (My homespun double-boiler method involves a sauce pan inside a 3 quart pot). Add the butter until halfway melted then add the chocolate, Nutella and heavy cream and stir like crazy, until the mixture comes out super smooth (see below). You can taste test; you should taste test. This, folks, is ganache. In other words: rich, chocolaty goodness!

Set the mixture aside to cool for 5-10 minutes (because we wouldn't want all the alcohol to burn off now would we?) then stir in the Bailey's and vanilla. Pour the mixture into a shallow dish (like an 8x8 pyrex), cover and place in the fridge for approximately 2 hours, or until it becomes harder, but still malleable.

Use a 1 inch melon baller, or two teaspoons (i used my tablespoon measuring spoon) to scrape out the chocolate. (A miniature assembly line works best here as this gets messy.) Scrape out a few balls (5 or 6) and then roll each one in your hand, shaping them into approximately 1 inch balls (actually the size is up to you, but 1 inch balls will yield you between 20-24 Nutella nuggets.) After about 5 or 6 balls, your hands will be quite coated with a thin layer of chocolate. I then give my hands a good rinse (or lickin'...jk) and then roll each ball in the chopped walnut.

Place each ball on a parchment lined cookie sheet and repeat with the remaining ganache mixture. Leave in the fridge for another hour or more (if you can resist) and then enjoy! In the fridge, these bad boys will last 3-4 days, if you need them too.

They are indeed rich. I made mine a bit bigger, thus yielding 20 truffles and while Ron has a chocolate sweet-tooth, i do not. I can eat only 1 in a sitting before i want to reach for the bag of salt and vinegar chips. Needless to say,  I have some pretty fortunate neighbors...Comin' at ya, Lynn.

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