Foccaccia Amore

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I love bread! I think it has a lot to do with my Balkan background – I’m programmed to prefer bread over any other carb source such as rice, pasta and potatoes. If I wasn’t aware of that before, I definitely learned when I was forced to eat the low-to-no-carb diet that goes with pregnancy diabetes.

Looking back, bread seems to have been part of every meal at our house. I dipped it into cups of cocoa in the morning (Oh, my dad’s cocoa! He used to make it stirring dark, bitter cocoa powder and sugar into a little milk, heat that, and then add steaming hot milk to it until it dissolved and combined to a thick, chocolatey concoction of bliss – it was cocoa heaven, even when there was no whipped cream on top, that was only for Sundays), I munched on it with my soups for lunch, and I loaded it with all sorts of cold cuts or nice Romanian cheese for dinner. Bread was comfort, nourishment and it was ubiquitous. Back then, it was nearly always white (pîine albă – A. you know which one I’m talking about, right…?).

With my family’s emigration to Germany, that, as most everything else, changed. Obviously, this is where they know about _grains_ and they really know their business with bread. I respect German bakers, I love many of their loaves, and I make my children (as well as us) eat healthy wholegrain bread a lot. But interestingly enough, the kids will be all over fresh Baguette or Italian white bread whenever I buy it – it would seem that whether it’s because of genetics or psychology, they’re white bread lovers too ;-).

But that wasn’t what I was going to talk about. I may have more to say about bread another time. For now, I’d just like to raise my hat (sorry, been watching a lot of White Collar lately) to one of the best bakers I know – dear J., the rest of this post is actually in your honor.

J. and her family moved to Washington 1,5 years ago, to our great loss and their new friends in D.C.’s gain, no doubt. She used to make foccaccias and pesto for kindergarten parents meets, which we took turns hosting at our houses. Her pesto was spectacular too, but as I’ve been making my own for ages, I wasn’t that awed by it. Her foccaccia, though, was an inspiration. It was crisp but not too dry, it was moist with olive oil but not dripping with it, it was savory with coarse salt and rosemary, and we couldn’t get enough of it. If she had told me she had made it with a bit of divine intervention, I’d have believed her.

As it was, she simply told me to get over myself, and give it a shot. And I did. My first attempts were pitiful :-). Too dry or too sticky. Too little salt. Wrong kind of flour. I made all sorts of mistakes. And I whined to J. about it. And then she said, and I quote ‚The recipe calls for a whole cup of olive oil – to be poured over the foccaccia. Don’t let that scare you!‘ Wow. A cup of olive oil? That would indeed not have occurred to me … So I went back and tried again. Of course I ended up with a dry foccaccia, which I went on to drench in very good olive oil. I guess it was alright with a Caprese salad. But it was nothing special, and I was aspiring to that level of ‚Hold the other food, this is all I want, thank you!‘. I was a far cry away from that.

Eventually, I got tired of trying, and didn’t bother with it anymore. After all, we have several excellent Italian delis in walking distance, and who needs to be perfect at everything? I’m not that much of an overachiever…

In the meantime, I learned how to make a really nice loaf of crusty no-knead bread. All you need it 16 (!) hours of rising time and a baking dish with a well-fitting lid. Read about that online, tried it, it’s easy, it tastes awesome, done and dusted. I regularly make these loaves for parties, or as a housewarming gift for friends (bread and salt, right?).

There’s two things about this method that are strikingly different from what you might think. One, I had always thought yeast dough needed to be kneaded a lot, and two, I had always aimed for a shiny, satiny, non-sticky lump before letting it rise … both couldn’t be more wrong when it comes to making foccaccia (or crusty bread, for that matter). You don’t knead that kind of dough, you simply mix your ingredients with a fork and let the yeast do its thing. If you think about it, it makes complete sense: by kneading, you press the bubbles that blow up those delicious caverns in the bread right out of it – you’ll get a fine crumb, but in this context, that’s just not going to cut it… The other important matter is that  you need that dough to be surprisingly gooey – not fluid, but viscous and definitely sticky. I assure you, it’s the way to greatness. Here’s what you do.

Using a fork, combine

500 g flour

1 tsp good salt

1 p dry yeast (or, if you prefer, the fresh equivalent for that amount of flour – I don’t know my way around fresh yeast so that part’s up to you)

lukewarm water

1/2 cup of your best olive oil

in a large bowl, using as much water and oil as needed to achieve that pasty, semi-fluid texture. Dust with extra flour, cover with a clean tea towel and set aside in a warm place to rise for at least 1 hour, or until the volume of the dough has doubled. Preheat your oven to 180 °C. Generously brush a baking dish (small square or round) with olive oil. Scrape out the viscous dough into the baking dish, punch some holes into the dough with your spatula or the handle of a wooden spoon, scatter some rosemary over the dough and put in the oven to bake for about 30-40 min. When done, take out of the oven and pour a healthy drizzle of olive oil over the still hot foccaccia. It should soak up all the oil nicely, but don’t overdo it – you should still be able to mop up sauce with that foccaccia. You’ll know when it’s enough :-). Once cooled, you can scatter some coarse sea salt on top.

Foccaccia is also very good with sun-dried tomatoes, olives or garlic – simply push little pieces of tomato or whole pitted olives into the dough, or scatter with fine slices of garlic before baking.

Please do give it a shot – it’s easy, and it’s such a great skill to have under one’s belt. It’s also quick to make for surprise guests, or a hungry bunch of kids who inform you sometime in the afternoon that they’d all like to stay for dinner …

You can – should you have any left overs the next day – make very decent sandwiches with this, or use it for bread salad.

Buon appettito everyone!

Happy Birthday Girl Cake

People have been kind enough to ask about the birthday cake I showed in my last post – it’s this one, no need to go look for it again:

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As you can see, it has a nice, creamy frosting, which I will write up. The decoration is entirely up to you – gummy bears, smarties, sprinkles, nuts, chocolate chips or shavings … the possibilities are as endless as kids‘ appetites for sweets :-).

If it were my own cake, I’d probably go with dark chocolate shavings or use fresh raspberries – now there’s a thought! As it was, we used smarties, which my daughter loves, end of story.

Cake:

100 g flour

100 g ground almonds

100 g sugar

pinch of salt

1 p vanilla sugar (just use vanilla if you’re in any other country)

100 g grated chocolate

3 eggs

zest of 1 lemon

1 p baking powder

Frosting

300 g Cream cheese

200 g butter, soft but not melted

lemon juice to taste

250 g (or more, depending on the consistency) powdered sugar

For the cake, cream butter and sugar, add eggs, vanilla, salt, lemon zest, almonds and flour. Stir with wire whisk until combined, adding baking powder last. If the mixture gets too thick, add a little milk.

Preheat the oven to 160 °C. Butter a round spring-form pan and dust with flour. Scrape out the dough into the pan. Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until an inserted skewer comes out clean. Let cool on a wire rack, then carefully turn out.

Prepare the frosting well in advance. You want your ingredients to have room temperature in order to combine well. And you need time to chill it for a few hours before frosting your cake. At least I prefer doing it like this. I’m sure you can use it even when it’s still soft. It just seems to me that it keeps its shape better when you let it firm up before spreading it.

To make the frosting, combine the ingredients in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until smooth. At this point, you can use food coloring or a bit of juice if you’d like your frosting to be anything other than white. Add more powdered sugar so it stays in shape as you add any liquid. In fact, I encourage you to go nuts with the powdered sugar – you need it for stability, never mind the calories for the time being. We’re all about appearances (of the cake) right now. If you’d like to pipe fancy cupcake-like ornaments on your cake, more power to you – I didn’t have it in me this time, but this frosting is definitely up for the task, especially after you’ve let it set a bit in the refrigerator.

After an appropriate chilling period, put your cake on a platter, get out a clean spatula and go to town – you want the cake covered in a generous layer of frosted goodness. If you’re new to this, pretend you’re making a peanut butter sandwich – too little will leave you with a dry feeling of disappointment, and too much will give you a tummy ache. Walk that line carefully. But, above all: Make that cake look pretty! Once you’re done with that, decorate with any sugary, chocolatey or fruity extras to your (or your kid’s) heart’s content.

Admire, give yourself a pat on the shoulder, and put the cake in the refrigerator until required. Go wrap presents, inflate balloons, or enjoy a nice long soak in the tub – anything that will make you be zen with the madness that will follow once the little guests arrive. But remember they’re young now, they won’t stay that way forever, and you’re making memories with them and for them. Cherish every birthday you have the privilege of celebrating with your kids.

On that note, I will go play a game of Parcheesi with my daughter who is home with a stomach bug today.

Happy baking, happy frosting, and of course: enjoy your cake!

Four Babies!

Is there anything in the world more moving than gazing at a newborn? Being a mom myself, and having many friends who have children, some of whom are younger than mine, I’ve held my fair share of babies. I find it incredibly humbling every single time. The tiny fingers and feet, the absolute trust and the instantaneous impulse to protect the little creature, the glowing serenity in a new mom’s face – I think they’re all very precious, and I’m so happy to have seen dear B. and little J. last week.  I’m also very proud to have made that young man a hat that actually fits him  – without even knowing how big his head was going to be – check it out:
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I worked with a very soft cotton/merino mix in a lovely shade of powder blue – it came out really nicely, crocheted in rounds, using the proven and tested method of gaining every 2 in the second round, every 3 in the 3rd, every 4 in the 4th and so on and so forth until you’re happy with the width … I’ve come to like the half double crochet stitch for hats. It makes for a dense but not too thick texture, windproof but not too bulky. I’ll be meeting the other 3 boys in the near future – looking forward to that.

It seems to be the time for tying up loose ends, literally 😉 – here’s another project I’ve been working on off and on, my sweet A.’s scarf, in stylish shades of blue, green and purple – a merino and mohair mix, hand-dyed and what have you … it’s going to make her eyes shine, I just know it – not that they need it! Here’s my dear friend F. modeling it for me before I packed it to be sent off to the States, hopefully to arrive in time for Xmas:

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I also finished the socks I mentioned in my last post, here’s me breaking them in. I am wearing my favorite PJs, the ones I made the socks to match actually. A. made those PJs for me and I love them sooo much – cannot thank you enough, bb.

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In the meantime, as stress relief from preparing my tax statement (I am really, really not a numbers person – compiling that file for our tax advisor drives me up the walls every year!!!) I started on a new project, no two. One is a pretty straightforward, long-term thing for my daughter who is now, unbelievably, six years old:

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She asked for a crochet blanket of her own. And since I always wanted to do a larger Granny Square project, I’ve manned up and began making piles of very girly-colored pink and red and off-white Granny Squares. I’ll be needing quite a few of them, so that is something to keep me busy on all those long winter afternoons. It’ll cheer me up to see those summery colors, no doubt, over the darker months.

I’ve also started on a bulky yarn big turtleneck sweater in shades of green for myself, inspired by (but not following, of course) a pattern on Ravelry. I bought the yarn for it about a year ago, in fact, I bought yarn for two projects that day, having been in that dangerous mindset I sometimes get when having submitted a big assignment. It’s not a great idea for me to hit the yarn shop when I’m like that. I will be exhausted, giddy at having met my deadline, I will be over-caffeinated, I won’t have slept enough for weeks, and I will, on occasion, make what my mom would have called ‚unreasonable‘ choices. But come to think about it, spending a little too much money on yarn is not the absolute worst thing that can happen in a situation like that. In the end, I usually get around to the projects, eventually … so, onward with that green sweater.

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This is as far as I’ve gotten – it’s quick work really, what with the 5 mm needles and that thick, fluffy yarn. It’s pure wool, and it has that homespun, slightly irregular texture to it that used to be all the rage in the olden days when I started knitting – I think there were still a few dinosaurs roaming the plains then… I’m talking about the early eighties, of course.

What else is there to tell? Fall vac’s over, clocks have been set back to wintertime – always a difficult adjustment to make to have that extra hour of afternoon sunshine taken away from you, I think. Soon, the kids will leave for school in the dark and will only come home after sundown. Not my favorite time of the year, despite of Thanksgiving to look forward to.

How about you? Any thumbs up for November? What is it about this month that you enjoy especially? As always, I’d love to hear about your latest crafts projects, and if you have a special Thanksgiving recipe or tradition, I’d certainly love reading about that too!

I may post a new recipe soon – it would seem that I finally, after years of practice, managed to nail The Foccaccia, thanks to my former co-kindergarten-mom J. who sadly moved back to the States a while ago. Her foccaccia was the highlight of many parents meets, and she encouraged me to even try to make one myself. Cheers, dear J.!

I was going to post this last night but didn’t, so I get to wish you a sunny day instead of encouraging you to run a nice tub and snuggle up … which you may still be able to do depending on when and where you’ll read this :-)!