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Stop for Science (again!): Gluten-Free Soft Pretzels

6 Nov

Regular readers of this blog will recall my Home Alone style dash through the Frankfurt airport, induced by the scent of warm soft pretzels (laugenbrezel!), and the subsequent foray into the chemistry that gives us this glorious bread. Ah yes, we donned our gloves and surgical masks together, avoided recreating any particularly cringe-worthy scenes from Fight Club, and discovered that sometimes you have to be a little brave to make the magic happen.

It appears that suddenly the rest of the world has discovered that pretzels are that good, because it seems like every restaurant is offering sandwiches on pretzel buns now. The nerve! Yes, restaurant industry, thanks for waiting until I went gluten-free to shove advertisements for pretzel rolls in my face at every turn. But it’s like they say: Don’t get mad, get even.

And I found the perfect opportunity on a chilly Sunday over the weekend to do just that. With leftover mornay sauce from the previous night’s macaroni and cheese just begging to be reheated as cheese dip, clearly, it was time to take back the pretzel.

The process for making gluten-free pretzels is pretty similar to making traditional pretzels. There are some differences in the dry ingredients in order to add more acid and give the dough that chewy tenderness, but the main difference I found is purely tactile. The gluten-free dough feels much less stiff, so it took more care and a lighter touch to roll it out. I’d recommend keeping a little bowl of sweet rice flour nearby to flour your hands with, because it’s pretty likely that the warmth from your hands will make the dough stick to them otherwise. The other main difference is kind of awesome: only one rise! So basically, you get your pretzels twice as fast. Hallelujah!

Gluten Free Soft Pretzels

  • 3 1/4 cups gluten-free flour blend (here’s mine!), plus ¼ – ½ cup extra
  • 1 1/2 tsp. xanthan gum
  • ½ cup dry buttermilk powder
  • 1 package rapid-rise or instant yeast
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tbsp. dark brown sugar or barley malt syrup
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. rice vinegar or cider vinegar
  • 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1 ½ cups warm water, about 110 degrees
  • 1 oz. food grade lye
  • Coarse salt or pretzel salt
  • Plastic gloves, safety goggles, vinegar, and nonreactive pans and utensils.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set them aside.

Combine the flour blend, xanthan gum, buttermilk powder, yeast, cream of tartar, baking soda, brown sugar, and salt in a large bowl and mix well.

20131103_074135Add the vinegar, butter, and egg whites to the dry ingredients and mix well, then add the water in a slow steady stream. Once all of the water has been added, turn the mixer to a high speed and mix for 2-3 minutes. The dough will be loose and wet.

20131103_075122Turn the mixer speed down to low and add flour 1 tbsp. at a time just until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl. It will still be quite tacky. Use a dough scraper to turn the dough out onto a silpat or lightly floured board, then knead lightly until smooth. Divide it into 12-16 equal pieces, depending on how large you would like the rolls to be. From here, you can either roll the dough into balls OR roll out into thin ropes and form into the traditional pretzel shape.

20131103_08033420131103_08041120131103_080414Set the rolls onto the prepared baking sheet, cover lightly with plastic wrap, and allow them to rise in a warm place for 45 minutes. They will puff up, but will not quite double in size.

Now it’s time for the lye bath. Put on your gloves and safety goggles, and wipe down the surface of your workstation with plain white vinegar. Keep a small glass of vinegar nearby to neutralize any spills of the lye solution.

20130807_115440Measure one quart of cool water into a nonreactive saucepan. Slowly add one ounce of food grade lye and stir gently to dissolve. ALWAYS add the lye to the water and not the water to the lye. Doing it the other way around may cause the lye to react and combust.

20130807_131512Dip each pretzel in the lye solution for 30 seconds and then place back on the parchment-lined baking sheet using a slotted spoon. When finished, wipe down any surfaces that may have come into contact with lye with a vinegar soaked rag, and then with warm soap and water.

Sprinkle the pretzels with coarse salt and then let them rest while the oven is preheating.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Bake the pretzels for 20-30 minutes or until they are a deep golden brown.

20131103_09294320131103_09295220131103_093145 Cool completely on a wire rack prior to storing.

To save pretzels for later enjoyment, wrap individual pretzels in plastic wrap and then put them in a zip-top bag in the refrigerator or freezer. These reheat beautifully in the toaster or toaster oven, so you don’t have to worry about the leftovers going to waste. Perfect for slider-style sandwiches, cheese dip, mustard, or just alongside a cup of coffee, they are a hit out of the park.

So the next time some chain restaurant’s advertisement comes blaring through your television or radio praising their “artisan,” “hand-crafted,” or “revolutionary” pretzel buns… remember that you’ve totally got the power to make them even better.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Lessons in Problem Solving: Chocolate-Caramel Tart revisited

20 Sep

I recently went gluten-free. Yes, I’ll still be baking with wheat to share recipes with you on the blog, but for my own purposes, eliminating gluten from my diet has done a world of good. The benefits have been pretty staggering, and I’ve finally stopped feeling like “I’m just doing this because it’s the trendy thing.” Even under the advice of a doctor, I thought, “This is stupid.” I don’t have a wheat allergy, I don’t have celiac, how could a mild intolerance be an actual problem?  My brother was once given a pair of shoes for an opera performance and they were far too small. The costumer’s response? “Suffer for art!!” And cooking is my art, after all.

But the hemo-doc thinks it could have an effect on my iron levels, so I decided to be a compliant patient.

I was initially annoyed, and then decided to see the situation as an opportunity. I would try new foods, post new recipes, and just…play in the kitchen. My only rule was to avoid the gluten-free baking mixes or specialty pre-packaged cookies. The last thing I wanted was to incorporate a lot of potato and cornstarch into my diet instead of using more whole grains in general. After a few days of perusing and one or two brief experiments…something magical happened.

What would you think if I told you that I could make the best candy bar in the world without a drop of flour, butter, or refined sweetener? Perhaps you might run screaming in the other direction, but then you wouldn’t get any and that would be very, very sad. Because it is literally one of the best tarts I have ever made. It may even trump the Nutella tart. This is basically my favorite candy bar turned into a pastry that will truly knock your socks off. Caramel, chocolate, and nuts…what’s not to like? I must be on to something, because it disappeared before my eyes when shared with friends.

Date-Almond Butter Caramel and Chocolate Tart

For the crust:

  • 1 ½ cups finely ground almonds
  • ½ cup toasted, shredded, unsweetened coconut
  • 2 tbsp. grade b maple syrup
  • 2 tbsp. coconut oil, melted
  • Pinch of salt

For the caramel filling:

  • 10 medjool dates, pitted and soaked in warm water for 30 minutes
  • 6 tbsp. almond butter
  • 6 tbsp. grade b maple syrup
  • 4 tbsp. coconut oil
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt

For the chocolate ganache

  • 4 oz. unsweetened chocolate
  • 1/3 cup light or regular coconut milk
  • Grade b maple syrup to taste (I used a 4-5 tablespoons)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the dry ingredients for the crust in a food processor and blend well.

20130919_171346[1]Mix together the coconut oil and maple syrup and then drizzle into the dry ingredients. Pulse this mixture until it begins to clump.

20130919_171358[1]20130919_171448[1]Press the crust into the bottom of a greased 9 or 10 in. tart pan with a removable bottom. Bake for 14 minutes or until golden brown and fragrant.

20130919_171729[1]20130919_173215[1]Cool the crust completely on a wire rack. I usually just refrigerate it for 20 minutes or so.

Prepare the caramel by combining the almond butter, maple syrup, coconut oil, vanilla and salt in a food processor and blend well.

20130919_172624[1]Add the drained, soaked dates and process until smooth. It may take a  few minutes.

20130919_174943[1]For the ganache, chop the chocolate and place it in a small bowl.

20130919_174301[1]Heat the coconut milk until it simmers, and then pour it over the chocolate. Allow it to sit for 5 minutes and then whisk until smooth.

20130919_175652[1]20130919_180016[1]Assemble the tart by spreading the caramel into the crust in an even layer.

20130919_174927[1]Refrigerate for a half hour or until the caramel begins to firm up. It will still be sticky, but it should be cool. Drizzle the chocolate ganache on top and voila! Scrumptious, candy-like tart.

20130920_052754[1]And there you have it, a delicious surprise that you can share with all of your gluten-free, vegan, or paleo friends. Nothing fake, no special ingredients, just good stuff that happens to be pretty good for you. Sort of. 😉

This whole experience has reminded me of the importance of creativity and ingenuity. I was so thankful once I began looking at the situation it through a different lens, and even though I know there’s nothing that will stop me from baking bread or craving pizza every so often, I can accept that by remembering that I can always cook, have a taste, and share with others. What an energizing lesson!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Share the Love: Breakfast Cake

12 Sep

A former colleague of my husband’s once said to him that it was foolish of me to bake for my coworkers so often. She claimed that my colleagues would not take me seriously. They would see me as nurturing, mothering, and not as an asset to the company itself. Not a professional.

Huh.

I thought that was some managerial psycho-babble right there. What’s the point of being an asset and doing your best work if you aren’t good to the people around you? What kind of feelings do you build up in your life? What kind of environment do you create if you aren’t welcoming?

Still, that idea struck me when I got laid off earlier this year. Maybe she was right. All summer, I wondered what I would do when I finally found a new job. I fretted over the idea of not being taken seriously. Even though I consider the blog a fine example of my writing skills, I considered removing it from my resume and LinkedIn profile.

Then I thought of the butter tarts and the Nanaimo bars that gave one colleague memories of home. The Happy Camper and FRACAS where I got to share my favorite things with the whole staff. The boerewors I made for my former boss when he couldn’t find it anywhere in DC.  The cider doughnuts I got up early to fry at least once each fall when suddenly DC turned crisp, orange, and gold. The multitude of morning coffees shared with people reaching into the infamous “Giant Cookie Jar,” and leaving with a smile and a thank-you.

I decided then and there that I would embrace my whole self. Wherever I ended up, I’d work hard to be a productive and driven member of the team, AND continue to share what I love.

What is one of the first things we learn in preschool and kindergarten? Sharing. Our smallest selves are taught that if we share with one another, the community as a whole benefits. It’s an enormous ripple effect; joy multiplies when we share. Sharing bonds us and can bring groups together that might otherwise never communicate. It teaches us to think beyond our own personal existence and consider our place as a citizen of the planet.

In other words, sharing is really important. And if it isn’t considered a professional asset to be willing to share (whether it be knowledge, caring, office supplies, time…), then I think we need a serious change of culture.

I did find a new job. In fact, of the 60ish I applied for, I interviewed for, and got the one I wanted the most. And during my first week at the office, an invitation went out for an in-office bridal shower. The party planner happened to be in my office and was discussing the expense involved in buying cupcakes for the party.

“How many do you need?”

And so it began. Inspired by my family’s favorite birthday cakes, I made four varieties that I knew would bring an extra shot of delicious to a celebration. And a tart too, so as to not leave our gluten-free and vegan friends hungry.

A version of Lynn’s Triple Coconut Cake all filled up with tangy lime curd…

coconut cakeRoger’s two joys in one; a red wine chocolate cake enrobed in bittersweet chocolate ganache…

chocolateJoe’s sunny lemon cake with blueberry filling, lemon cream cheese frosting, and candied lemon peel…

lemon cakeA rather decadent chocolate-coconut-macadamia tart with an almond-coconut crust that was both gluten-free and vegan…

tartAnd a tribute to my love of all things breakfast, this little number…

“Breakfast in Bed,” or Brown Butter Cake with Maple Buttercream and Praline Bacon

  • 3 cups sifted cake flour
  • 3 1/2 tsp.  baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • 6 oz. unsalted butter
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 1 cup cultured buttermilk
  • 2 tsp.  pure vanilla extract

First, melt the butter and allow it to brown lightly. Then return it to a small container and refrigerate until it has re-solidified completely. Do not skip re-solidifying! Adding melted butter to the cake batter will make for a very dense, sunken cake.

20130906_23380920130907_081156Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and butter and flour two 12-well cupcake tins (or use paper liners).

In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, or using a hand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until they are smooth and fluffy. Then add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well between each addition. Stir in the vanilla extract.

20130907_08162820130907_081724With the mixer on low speed, alternately add the flour mixture (in three additions), and milk (in two additions), beginning and ending with the flour.

20130907_082050Evenly divide the batter between the prepared pans, and then tap the pans gently on a counter to remove excess air bubbles.

20130907_082457Bake 23 to 25 minutes or until they are golden on top, and a slightly darker golden brown at the edges. They’ll have wonderfully crispy edges a la the pancakes at the ultimate palace of flapjacks, Pamela’s. Do not argue with me about Pamela’s pancake supremacy, you will not win. Important note: These do not rise a lot–they will not have high domes. The cake is still fluffy and moist inside, I assure you. If you really want the extra lift, you can add another tsp. of baking powder.

Place the cakes on a wire rack to cool in the pans for about 10 minutes, and then remove from the pan and allow them to cool completely before frosting.

Maple Buttercream

  • 8 oz. unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 cup maple syrup
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt

To prepare the buttercream, combine all of the ingredients in a mixer on low speed until they are combined, and then beat on medium-high speed using a whisk attachment until creamy and fluffy. It will take 5-7 minutes.

20130908_08343220130908_084715Praline Bacon

  • 1 lb. sliced bacon
  • 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 ½ oz. pecans, toasted and ground

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Arrange the bacon in a single layer on a wire rack set over a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake the bacon for 20-30 minutes, or until it begins to brown.

Mix together the brown sugar and toasted pecans.

20130908_085332Remove the bacon from the oven and sprinkle the brown sugar / pecan mixture on the slices, pressing down lightly to make it adhere. Return the bacon to the oven and cook until crisp, about another 10 minutes.

20130908_08535220130908_091416Allow the bacon to cool completely before breaking into small pieces.

Finally, assemble the cupcakes. Pipe or spread the maple buttercream onto the cupcakes and sprinkle on the candied bacon.

20130908_094153It really is like eating pancakes with maple syrup and bacon…only better!

The cupcakes went over very well at the party, and the best part is that sharing them helped me get to know my new coworkers better.

So what if people think you’re nurturing? The way I see it, if that’s the most negative thing someone can think of to say about you…you’re doing a pretty okay job on planet earth.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Stop for Science: Soft Pretzel Time!

8 Aug

On our way back from Prague last summer, Joe and I had a layover in the Frankfurt airport. It wasn’t very long, and knew we’d have to board pretty quickly after going through customs. As we stood in the lengthy line to board the plane, a smell caught my nose.

There are a few foods that I can sniff out like a bloodhound. One of them is quite possibly the only food I won’t pass up (if it’s fresh!): Soft pretzels. Yes, we all know by now that the carbo-queen loves her bread, but pretzels are special. Their taut, thin outer crust, mahogany brown color, coarse bits of salt, slight malty flavor, and soft pillow-y middle make them a special kind of snack. And of course, warm ones are best. Just about every pretzel I ate while we toured Berlin (and it was probably a two digit number) met these criteria. All that had to happen was for me to see a sign that read ‘laugenbrezel’ and Joe nearly lost me on the street as I followed my moth-like trance toward pretzel glory.

So when I saw a lone man in a kiosk flipping ropes of dough, my eyes widened and Joe got a worried look on his face. Inwardly whimpering that I might never have such delicious and perfect pretzels again…well…

“I’ll be right back.”

The line was maybe 3 or 4 people long, and unlike American mall pretzel vendors there is only one “flavor” to choose. It moved swiftly, but I could see Joe worriedly moving toward the front of the boarding queue. Three hot soft pretzels in a paper bag later, I sprinted through the airport a la the family from “Home Alone,” and onto the plane for the final leg of our trip home.

But as delicious foods are, they were gone all too soon. Needless to say, I declined dinner on the flight.

Every time since that I found myself in a bakery, my eyes scanned longingly for that characteristic shape. I won’t say that I got snobby about it, but I was honestly disappointed most times that I found them around here. Either they were simply bread rolled into a pretzel shape, or heavily glazed in butter, or had a funny aftertaste, or were sadly stale and dry. Even most street vendors transitioned to using the pre-frozen variety…which just never live up to how nice they look.

So, it was time to bake. First, I had to learn what made pretzels different from other breads. It turns out that one simple step makes all the difference. And it might scare you. A little bit.

Lye. Yes, drain cleaning, soap-making lye. Before you wonder, yes a food-grade version is available, and no you should not use that bottle of drain cleaner from the hardware store. Lye (sodium hydroxide for the scientifically inclined) is an alkali solution that changes the pH of the dough in such a way that it helps the crust gelatinize, achieve the dark color, and even makes the salt stick. It’s also responsible for the distinct pretzel flavor and texture of the crust.

Many home pretzel bakers forgo using lye because it requires some extra precaution due to its caustic nature. Instead, they use a solution of water and baking soda. It produces a similar result, but not the same flavor. And unfortunately, after they cool, the pretzels develop a weird metallic taste. I can’t (or shouldn’t) eat an entire batch of pretzels while they’re still warm, so I’d rather be able to keep them around longer and get that authentic flavor. One that will remind me forever of beautiful days walking around Berlin with the love of my life. What could be better?

Bavarian-style Soft Pretzels

  • 1 tbsp. active dry yeast
  • 4 1/4 cups bread flour
  • 1 and 1/4 cups warm water, divided
  • 2 tsp. sugar 2 tsp. salt
  • 2 ½ tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1 oz. food-grade lye
  • Coarse sea salt or pretzel salt
  • Plastic gloves, safety goggles, vinegar, and nonreactive pans and utensils.

Proof the yeast by dissolving it in ¼ cup warm water, along with 2 tsp. sugar. Let the mixture sit until foamy, about 5 minutes.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the bread flour and salt, then add the yeast mixture and full cup of warm water. Once the dough comes together, knead it for 5 minutes with the dough hook or by hand. The dough will be very stiff.

20130807_10562820130807_105856Allow it to rest for 5 minutes, and then start kneading in the butter. Knead for 5 minutes, or until the butter is completely incorporated and the dough is very smooth and elastic.

20130807_11012420130807_11111420130807_111211Roll the dough into a ball and place it in a lightly greased bowl. Toss to coat the dough ball in oil, and then cover the bowl and allow the dough to rise for an hour, or until doubled in side. Degas and divide the dough into approximately eighteen 2 oz. pieces.

20130807_121042

Roll each piece into a foot long rope. Rest for 2-3 minutes and then shape the pretzels. Take a rope of dough, roll it out another 6 inches and then twist into a pretzel shape. Glue the “arms” down with a dab of water.

20130807_12222220130807_12255220130807_12340720130807_122659Set the pretzels on two baking sheets lined with parchment paper and refrigerate for one hour. The surface will dry out and a skin will form on top: this is a good thing!

20130807_123046Put on plastic gloves and safety goggles. I wear a surgical mask too, but mostly because I’m short and my face is very close to the pot.

20130807_115440Wipe the surface of your work table with some white vinegar, and keep a small glass of the vinegar nearby. It’s unlikely that there will be any bad reaction, but if there are vinegar will neutralize the reaction almost instantly.

To make the lye solution, measure one quart of cool water into a nonreactive saucepan. Slowly add one ounce of food grade lye and stir gently to dissolve. ALWAYS add the lye to the water and not the water to the lye. Doing it the other way around may cause the lye to react and combust.

20130807_131512Dip each pretzel in the lye solution for 30 seconds and then place back on the parchment-lined baking sheet using a slotted spoon. Sprinkle the pretzels with coarse salt and then let them rest for 20 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

20130807_13194720130807_133020Wipe everything that may have come into contact with lye with a vinegar soaked rag and then wash with warm soap and water. This may be overkill, but if you have kids or pets around, better safe than sorry I say.

Bake the pretzels for 20-25 minutes or until they are a deep golden-brown. Eat and be happy. Is it worth the hassle? You be the judge:

20130807_14181920130807_14204020130807_142128It is said that an Italian monk invented the pretzel in the 1600s, and that the crossed “arms” across the middle represented folded hands. He supposedly gave this to children who learned their prayers faithfully, but as with much of food lore, there isn’t a whole lot of evidence to back that up. This monk referred to the bread rolls as “pretiola,” which translates to “little rewards.”

I’d say that’s about right. This batch went off to the Arlington County Fair to be entered in this year’s baking competition. I certainly hope the judges find them rewarding.

Ciao for now,

Neen

The Richest Rags

3 Aug

When I think of my gram, I think of one of my earliest loves: The ocean. My grandparents retired and moved to Florida the year that I was born, and so we most often saw them on our vacations to their home in Melbourne. Holding grandma’s hand on one of those earliest trips, I thought the surf crashing onto the sand was the most majestic thing I’d ever seen.

133And although some of what inspires us in childhood disappears, the awe of the ocean has never left me. It consumes my deepest core and most sacred place with happiness. It is where the divinity I see in the universe manifests itself most fully. It is where I find peace.

I associate the ocean with an unconditional love. If I let it carry me, eventually I rolled back onto the shore. There I came to rest on the wet sand, breathlessly laughing.  For hours on end, I rode the waves, tumbling and diving back in until I was so dizzy I collapsed on my beach towel. Then it was home to Grammy and Papap’s house, where they spoiled us with enormous and delicious meals, and endless hugs.  To my brother and I, going there meant limitless fun: Theme parks, mini-golf, ice cream sundaes, arcades, feeding the ducks, trips to Medieval Times, movies, and even a few vain attempts at fishing.

Today, it doesn’t matter what city I’m in, but whenever I’m at the ocean, Melbourne is where I am. My home away from home. I feel the water and smell the air and am overwhelmed with love.

What a beautiful gift. To have the ocean air be so powerful that it heals my soul with its breath, to have the sand always feel like sturdy ground beneath my tired feet, and to know that the waves will always bring me back to shore.

In the midst of my hurt that she is gone, I feel so thankful for that gift. Because it can never be taken from me, and so I know that she (and my Papap) will always be with me.

600156_10201645087796967_219509992_nVirginia Patella – July 10, 1924 – July 27, 2013

One of the things that my gram made for us on a regular basis was a soup called stracciatella, or, “rag soup.” It was one of my favorite things, and she knew it. Nearly every time I came home from college there was a quart or two of it reserved for me in my parents’ freezer. During a recent winter when I was going through a difficult time, she made me some and my mom went so far as to overnight ship it to me so I could use its healing powers as soon as possible.

Although she omitted the spinach most of the time because my Papap didn’t like it, I re-added it when I started making stracciatella at home. For me, the idea of having the most comforting food in the world become one of the things I ate to keep my iron up made all the sense in the world. Not only did it then bring my soul peace, but it brought my body strength.

Stracciatella Patella

  • 1 gallon chicken broth*
  • 12 oz. fresh or frozen chopped spinach
  • 8 oz. acini de pepe or other pastina
  • 8 oz. ground beef
  • ½ cup parmesan or pecorino romano cheese
  • 3 eggs
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Fresh chopped parsley

Bring half of the chicken broth to a boil in a large pot and add the pastina. Cook at a heavy simmer for 10 minutes.

20130801_134435While the pastina is cooking, season the ground beef with salt and pepper and form small spoon-size meatballs. I usually make them no larger than 1/3rd oz. Saute the meatballs until they are browned and set aside.

20130801_134448Add the meatballs and seasonings to the soup and cook for another 10 minutes.

20130801_13544520130801_140002Beat together the eggs and cheese, then pour in a steady stream into the pot of soup while whisking vigorously, and whisk for a minute.

20130801_14023520130801_14044320130801_140447Add the chopped spinach and simmer until everything is hot.

20130801_14211820130801_14214520130801_141844

*The extra broth is used if you refrigerate / freeze and reheat the soup. The pastina will absorb some of the liquid, so each time you reheat a portion, you’ll need to add some broth to make it soupy again.

This soup is the perfect meal: Some vegetables, pasta, rich proteins, and a warm broth. It requires no side dish, freezes like a champ, and can be on the table in a half-hour. For someone like my grandma, who was always working hard, taking care of her three girls, and serving her church and community, it fit like a glove.

Of all the foods I make, this is the recipe that is most transformative. The recipe that can make any day better, any bruise less painful, any hurt feeling less sharp.

This is where I turn when I am floating away and cannot see the land. I make this pot of soup and yes, the tide rolls me back to the shore.

I taste it, and I am home.

IMG_5672

Ciao for now,

Neen

The Zen Balance of Maple-Cured Smoked Bacon

16 Jul

Talk about a hiatus, eh? Well, Neen has not abandoned her Notes, but the last few weeks have been a little bit tricky. My last week at the Folger was the epitome of bittersweet, and frankly I’ll admit that I’m still grappling with what and who I am now. It sounds strange; I never thought that I was so attached to seeing myself as Associate Production Editor of Shakespeare Quarterly until I suddenly couldn’t do it anymore.

Now Im the boss. That is beyond weird. Yes, the individual who hates being bossy or delegating tasks was suddenly thrust into the bizarre managerial scenario of being her own boss. And though I’m not perfect at it, I’m getting the hang of keeping my days busy and varied. I do crave a little bit of structure, which is on the horizon in the form of a recent acceptance into Tufts’ graduate certificate program in nutrition science for communications professionals, and (provided the application and interview process go well) beginning yoga teacher training in the fall at Pure Prana.

Where I’m headed with my career is vaguer. I write new letters and apply for jobs every day, but nothing has leapt off of the page at me yet. So part of what I am hoping to do through these personal and professional development courses is figuring out what exactly I’d like to be next. I’ve already decided that I don’t want my identity to hinge on it…who I am is Neen.  And pigeon-holing a person, or boiling down their essence to a single occupation? Well…that seems oversimplified to say the very least.

But there are some constants and certainties in life, and one of those is surely cooking. It has remained (along with family) as my home base, my safe place throughout this entire internal earthquake. It has been where I manage to find a center…and so what recipe more appropriate to share with you than the sweet-salty balancing of over-the-top-crazy-good MAPLE BACON.

My last few days at the office were full of last-minute trips to my favorite walkable spots on the Hill, and especially to Eastern Market. I decided to make some duck prosciutto (recipe here) and try out my new Cameron stovetop smoker on a batch of maple bacon. After acquiring the necessary animal parts at Union Meat (thanks guys!), I stopped to talk to Mrs. Calomiris and she as always sent me on my way with an armload of the perfect accompaniments, and an extra banana and a handful of cherries (“for your walk back to the office”). I felt rejuvenated after that trip, and ready to forge ahead with so many of the food projects I’d put off due to lack of time. So yes, while I haven’t written to you recently…oh, I have been cooking. And rest assured that this “so-good-it’s-gonna-make-you-swear” bacon is just the first of many treats to come.

Maple Cured Smoked Bacon

  • 5 lb. pork belly, skin on
  • 2 oz. kosher salt
  • ¼ cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 tsp. pink curing salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper (I used a citrus pepper blend)
  • ¼ cup dark grade b maple syrup

Combine the kosher salt, brown sugar, pink salt, and black pepper, and mix well. Add the maple syrup and stir until the ingredients are thoroughly combined.

20130612_17185520130612_171934Trim the pork belly until it is as uniformly shaped as possible. This is important because you want the cure to penetrate the meat evenly. Place the trimmed pork belly in a snug-fitting nonreactive baking dish. I used a 9×13 in. pyrex baking pan, but the pan you use will be dependent on the size and shape of your piece of meat.

20130612_172003Rub the meat thoroughly with the cure on all sides.

20130612_172401Cover the baking dish with plastic wrap and press down to remove as much air as possible. Move the dish to the refrigerator and allow the belly to cure for one week, flipping it every other day to redistribute the cure.

The bacon is cured when the meat is firm to the touch at the thickest point. If it still feels squishy at the end of a week, flip it and allow it to cure for another 24 hours. This belly took 8 days to fully cure. Once the meat feels firm, rinse and pat dry and move it to a wire rack over a baking sheet and refrigerate uncovered for 24 hours. This will allow the surface of the meat to develop a sticky pellicle for the important forthcoming smoky goodness to adhere to.

Now, if you have an outdoor smoker you’ll want to preheat it to about 250 degrees. I used an indoor stovetop smoker set over medium heat. For this batch, I selected applewood chips to add a little bit of fruitiness to the caramel-y molasses flavors in the brown sugar and maple syrup cure.

9299857471_6773c4974b_bSmoke until the belly reaches an internal temperature of 150 degrees and then allow it to cool completely before attempting to slice.

9299823731_80b87f011f_b9299844553_eda8328fcf_bGo ahead and slice it down yourself if you’re feeling like Chef Sakai. Me? I sought the excellent helpful hands of the folks at Springfield Butcher. For a more than reasonable $7 fee, they sliced the whole belly down for me and I had over 4 lbs. of perfectly even slices to share with family over our vacation trip to Fenwick Island.

9302600758_fbfc61dd8e_b9302584984_d72cf909bf_b9302554436_55faeb656f_b20130624_075909Verdict? Salty, sweet, deep caramel richness, and a fruity smoky finish. Well-rounded to the point of reaffirming my belief that finding balance in the kitchen is just a step away from translating it to other facets of life. Nobody has everything figured out, and even if someone did…wouldn’t that be kind of boring and predictable? I think I’ll keep looking for and refining the edges, because like the yogis always tell me: When you fall out of an inversion or a balancing posture, just reset your foundation and try again. Falling just means you’re reaching for something new.

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Something better.

Ciao for now,

Neen