The Occasional Sweet Treat

Today’s journal entry is a recipe for shortbread cookies. The Husband doesn’t eat store-bought shortbread cookies but he seems to like mine just fine. I made this batch using better butter and organic, unbleached all-purpose flour. It tasted much better than my first batch.

I only learned to cook when I got married, but I have to admit that I only really enjoyed cooking fairly recently. Probably because we really needed to stay home and cook our own meals because of the pandemic.

I am not really interested in learning how to bake because I’m not too much of a pastry person. I like the occasional treat while drinking coffee but it’s not too important to me. Since my husband was diagnosed with diabetes, we removed sugary drinks, processed foods, and desserts from our home, except to satisfy cravings once in a while.

The short bread cookies aren’t healthy treats, by any means, but it’s okay to indulge once in a while, especially if you make the treats yourself.

I am looking forward to this weekend. The past few weeks have been so busy at work that I hardly had time to read during the weekdays. This is alright, I’m glad there is a lot of work to do, especially these days.

I have big plans this week! I plan to catch up on my reading, snuggle in bed with the cat, maybe bake bread because we just ran out, and sleep, sleep, sleep.

Hoping for a peaceful end to the US election, and an orderly transition of leadership. Happy weekend, everyone!

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

A food journal entry from a couple of days ago. I just started reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I’m a huge Michael Pollan fan, and I find his approach to food very thoughtful and accessible.

I wish he would make a companion video to this, like his book Cooked, which has a companion documentary on Netflix. The reason I really love Pollan’s books is that they all inspire me to make more conscious decisions about what to cook and eat. I also learned how to bake our own bread because of it, that was pretty awesome. Any book that compels you to take action is worth the time you take reading it.

One can’t deny that unsustainable ways of producing food has led to a lot of environmental as well as health problems. We’re all connected. The more conscious we are about what we buy and eat (and where we buy our food), the better it is for the planet and for us. It’s like we’re all connected with silky threads that are easy to ignore because it may sound inconvenient to care, but at the same time, the impact of industrial farming and eating so much processed food is becoming hard to ignore. Little decisions like where to source your coffee, or the rice you buy every month, or the vegetables and meat you order every week–they make an impact. Especially on your health.

The pandemic has made apps like Session Groceries quite useful for people who are staying home and getting their groceries delivered. I’m sure there are a lot of other similar apps but this one has been the most reliable for me. It makes “farm to table” a reality in the absence of a farmer’s market. These days, more people are discovering the joy of brewing your own coffee at home, and a large part of what makes a good cup has to do with getting great beans. There are a lot of small businesses that have direct connections with coffee farmers and are more than happy to help you get to know your beans better.

I’m almost done with the first part of the book, which is about the Industrial source of food. Can’t wait to get to the next part, which is Pastoral.

Pasta Day

This is a food journal entry I wrote some weeks back. I had tweaked my ever-reliable meat sauce and meatballs recipe to incorporate garlic confit and it was pretty awesome. The Husband bought me a pasta machine, seeing that I have this newfound interest in making things by hand recently. Today I made a nice pasta lunch, which took some time to put together but was really well worth the effort.

              

I realized through Michael Pollan’s books that the only way to eat healthy is to cook what you eat as much as possible (because I still like to eat out and support local food businesses). Majority of what we eat at home should be cooked at home, though, because it’s the best way to know what’s going in your food. This decision is a journey, and I realized by the dearth of usable ingredients at home that I had initially, that this decision can completely transform a home’s kitchen if taken seriously. Today’s pasta lunch took a lot of effort, but I make it because it’s my husband’s favorite. This time, though, I included more handmade components. The night before, I had already prepared the meatballs and sauce, and before I even had anything simmering in a pot, I had baked our bread so that it will have cooled down sufficiently the next day. Before I went to bed, the meatballs were ready, the sauce was simmering on very low fire to gently coax out all the flavors of the herbs and tomatoes in it while I slept. The bread is cooling on a rack, and the pasta dough is in the fridge. I had laid out the pasta machine and the drying rack so that it will be ready for use the next day when I wake up.

I was so glad to see that the bread has a more open crumb today, despite the fact that I accidentally degassed it the night before because part of the banneton wasn’t sufficiently floured and the dough had stuck to it during cold fermentation. I snipped some chives from the garden and mixed it with butter to toast the bread with. Topped that with some freshly grated parmigiano reggiano while hot. The Husband cooked the pasta I rolled out and finished it with the sauce.

It was a delightful lunch, and I must say that the bread was really good. I’m not too good at baking country-style bread yet and my little creations still have so much room for improvement, but even at this point you can taste right away the difference between mass-produced bread and one you bake from home. The depth of flavor and the textures are simply not the same.

I didn’t learn how to cook until I got married, the day after my father died. Previous to that, I was completely dependent on his cooking and takeout food. When he died, I learned to cook more out of expediency than a real interest in it, but that was the time when I understood my father’s love language. He was a man of very few words, but he showed his love for us by lovingly preparing every meal. At that point, my relationship with food and cooking was never the same. Michael Pollan’s books just reminded me how wonderful the connection of food to not just our culture but our personal story can be. For me, it’s not just a nice pasta meal, it’s an expression of love, and a great way to remind myself that if I really want to learn something, I can learn it. Love is a great motivator, after all.

The Path to Better Bread

Today’s journal entry is about the process of learning about baking country-style bread and how understanding each step is better than following a recipe closely.

The more I understand about the process, the more I could edit it and get better results. You can’t really follow every recipe down to the scheduling because different kinds of flour will have different characteristics. There are so many variables involved aside from that; like the temperature, and the strength of your sourdough starter among others. The best recipes I’ve tried are those that encourage you to get your cues from the smell, appearance, and texture of the starter and your dough. There’s so much more to learn and I’m enjoying the baby steps that I’m taking.

I think that more than eating the bread that I make, I enjoy the learning part of it more. I consider myself a lifelong learner, which is what I enjoy most about reading. If anything piques my interest enough, I would probably attempt to learn it by myself. Michael Pollan’s books have been very influential for me because he has a way of translating his  intellectual curiosity into a set of organized ideas which he tests on his own and shares with others in a very accessible language. I was encouraged by the fact that he was also the kind of person who struggles with following a recipe, but understanding the process every step of the way helped so much more than any recipe could.

While the pandemic is raging outside, I guess it brings me comfort that I can focus my energy and attention on something useful and beautiful.

Bread #3 Takeaways

Yesterday’s food journal entry was about bread #3. I was so encouraged by the improvements I saw in bread #2 that I prepped my autolyse right away to make another one. I met someone online who is generous enough to guide me through the whole process from making a starter to baking, and he told me that I should be prepared to make mistakes but more importantly, I should learn from the mistakes. I definitely learned a lot from the first two attempts, and made some adjustments to get a better outcome. I especially made some progress with the shaping, so the bread looks aesthetically better than the first two. It really did turn out like a taut butt cheek after the cold fermentation. Then sprung up into a beautiful boule after baking.

This time I really waited before cutting into the bread. I think I waited about 4 hours before I sliced it. The bread tasted awesome. Surprisingly, if I cut it a bit thinner than the usual size of store-bought loaves, the flavor becomes more pronounced. The crumb was open, though there are parts that are not as open as others. The skin reminded me of pork cracklings. You can see the little air bubbles on it. It made the crust crunchy but not too thick that it’s hard to chew. The crumb is chewy but not sticky. The texture is very different from store-bought bread, and again I’m reminded that in my mind, I’ve fallen into the habit of comparing homemade bread against a commercial product. I’m used to bread that’s perfectly symmetrical, cloyingly sweet, and becomes hard and stale quickly. Sourdough bread actually stays soft whether it’s in the fridge or not. It’s not sweet, and I don’t experience hyper acidity after eating it.

I toasted a couple of slices this morning and ate them with pumpkin soup. It’s so delicious and filling. It’s true that the bigger the holes, the more complex the flavor of the bread. How awesome is that? They should just be filled with air but no, they’re filled with wonderful flavors.

My online friend who guided me through this journey is now teaching me how to strengthen my starter. How fascinating that, much like our little herb garden, the sourdough starter will provide you with delicious things as long as you take care of it.

I’m grateful that there are people online who are generous with their time and knowledge. From the people who answer questions about baking bread to those who post tutorials and recipes, there are a lot of people who love to share what they know. As awful as social media has been these past years, this is the part that I enjoy most. Social media makes sharing knowledge with other people a lot easier than before.

I’m getting ready to read that new book I bought (Omnivore’s Dilemma) by Michael Pollan. I can say that his writing changed my attitude about food in a more conscious, mindful way. His books Cooked, and In Defense of Food are the reason why I decided to learn how to bake my own bread. I’m ready to curl up in bed and read the weekend away.

My First Sourdough Baby

Today, I baked my first sourdough bread. There will be other sourdough babies in the future, but this one will always be special because it’s my first. The crust may be butt-ugly, but the crumb was alright. The flavor is there. Overall, it wasn’t bad at all.

I have an idea of the things that I can improve on next time. I need to really plan out my baking schedule, I need to be more gentle but confident in handling the dough, I need to be more decisive with the lame, and I have some ideas of things to change about how I cook it in the oven. Most of all, I need to loosen up and enjoy the process. I’ve always been intimidated with baking, and I considered bread-making to be way out of my reach. I need to relax and not be so afraid to make mistakes. I need to enjoy the learning process and just take whatever I can from the experience. The whole process is simple enough but takes a lot of time. It doesn’t take all of your time, though. Mostly, after all the stretching and pulling, it’s a lot of waiting. The fermentation process actually does all the heavy lifting for me.

I wasn’t sure about using whole wheat flour at first because I’ve had whole wheat bread before and I don’t really like it. Then again, I realized that I only ate store-bought whole wheat anything. I knew why it was the healthier option, and to eat healthier is the main reason why I wanted to learn how to make bread in the first place.

I made a rookie mistake and cut into the bread way too soon, making the texture a bit gummier than it should be. I made a mental note to really wait next time. Even if the bread is not perfect at all, the flavor was good. It was complex and the more you chew on it, the more the flavor develops in your mouth. I tasted a bit of sour notes, some salt, some of the yeast-y flavor that reminded me of beer, and wheat. Surprisingly, whole wheat did not taste  bad at all. It tasted nothing like store-bought wheat bread.

I made some veggie omelette us at home, and toasted the bread in butter. I had mine with coffee. My husband finished most of the loaf off, happily tearing away at it and mopping up some balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

There was a time when bread was considered bread only if it was made with three ingredients: flour, water, salt. The industrialization of farming and, by extension, food manufacturing meant that all the good stuff was removed from wheat to make it more white. Then vitamins and minerals are added back chemically. Bread isn’t really bread anymore, in the same way that many of the food we eat today are so over-processed, they aren’t really food anymore.

Today I baked my own bread, and it was fun. I look forward to doing it more regularly and learning more things along the way.

Sourdough Whole Wheat Crackers

Yesterday’s journal entry. Last Sunday, Grimer (my sourdough starter) had what I can only describe as a growth spurt. All this time he had been lazily bubbling by, just rising a little bit at a time before I feed it again. Then on Sunday when I woke up to feed it, it had doubled in size and was already on its way to being deflated because it was nearly time to feed it. I had been waiting for that to happen for a week but all of a sudden it did happen and it was so fascinating to watch. I fed it and it expanded again, this time to over three times its size. The texture is very similar to melted marshmallow.

All of a sudden, I had so much discard that I felt bad throwing them away. A friend of mine suggested I try making crackers and so I did. All I needed (aside from the starter discard) was whole wheat flour, butter, and salt. All of which I already had in our kitchen. The first batch was a little too thick and salty for my taste, but the succeeding two batches were successful.

The crackers were delicious, especially the second batch because I added some parmesan cheese on top before I popped the  batch in the oven. I snipped a bit of chives from our herb garden, mixed that up with cream cheese and ate the crackers with it, that was pretty awesome. To conjure something delicious out of just a few ingredients was pretty awesome. It was also quite fulfilling to be able to go out, harvest a few leaves from the herb garden, and know that the plant will grow new leaves for your future needs as long as you take care of them.

My husband said that I managed to make something with “whole wheat” delicious, and I get what he meant, but I’m realizing now that the only “whole wheat” bread or crackers that we really ate were mass-produced products and the taste was off-putting. I read from home bakers that whole wheat baked from home tastes a lot better. I can’t wait to find out for sure. Depending on how Grimer performs this week (I’ve increased his feeding to 100g flour and 100g water), if it continues to rise predictably, then I might be ready to bake our first loaf this weekend. I’m a little anxious because I’ve never been successful in baking and I never really baked a lot of things before, but one has to start somewhere, right? Friends who bake their own bread warned me to prepare myself for the ups and downs, but I must see my mistakes and learn from them. I plan to do exactly that.

Sourdough Starter Struggles

Today’s journal entry is about the progress of my sourdough starter. I’ve discarded two batches and started a new one last Monday in a smaller mason jar. I was having a hard time managing the large jars that I initially used. I think I’m able to manage Grimer better with the smaller jar.

I’m not gonna lie, it’s been an emotional roller coaster, but I think I’m forgetting that the most important ingredient here is time. I get impatient and either overfeed or underfeed my starter. If I don’t see any activity right away, I get impatient. Now I think I’m getting the rhythm of feeding the starter right, and the bubbles are increasing. Grimer is becoming more “active”, and I’m just going to take my time and make him stronger.

This little foray of mine into bread making is very educational not just because I learned a lot about what actually happens when you make a sourdough starter, or when you bake  bread, but also because I’m reminded that when you do things by hand, they take time. I’m not just talking about the cooking/baking process itself but the learning process. All good things take time. Grimer is sure taking his sweet time.

In the final chapter of Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked, he wrote about what he learned from a Korean woman regarding “hand taste”. Food can come from factories or fast food chains and they can be edible as they are uniform, but they don’t have “hand taste”, which is like the human signature. When you cook something, especially if you do it for someone, you share a bit of yourself in the process.

“Hand taste, however, involves something greater than mere flavor. It is the infinitely more complex experience of a food that bears the unmistakable signature of the individual who made it—the care and thought and idiosyncrasy that that person has put into the work of preparing it. Hand taste cannot be faked, Hyeon Hee insisted, and hand taste is the reason we go to all this trouble, massaging the individual leaves of each cabbage and then folding them and packing them in the urn just so. What hand taste is, I understood all at once, is the taste of love.”

― Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

I just love that. Sure, I can buy bread in a store and it would probably be easier, but I still want to learn how to make it myself. Not just because it’s healthier but also because I want to make it with my own  hands and impart my own hand taste to it.

Sourdough Starter Baby

I’m only on my third feeding of my little sourdough baby and it’s already showing a lot of activity. It’s quite fascinating to see it swell up like a billowy, sour-smelling lump of melted marshmallow, and then deflate when it gets hungry. I made a second jar, this time using whole wheat flour, just to see if there’s any difference between that and bread flour. It’s like keeping a baby Grimer in a jar, so fascinating. I’m taking my time strengthening the starter, which some people say could take anywhere between 1 week to 1 month. For now, I’m just enjoying the process and looking at photos of other people’s sourdough bread as inspiration.

The Sourdough Project

Yesterday’s food journal entry was about starting to learn  how to make sourdough bread. It has always  been a secret dream of mine to learn how to bake bread. Not cakes or brownies or pies…bread. I’ve just always been so intimidated by the thought of it that I always found a reason to put it off. Reading Michael Pollan’s books encouraged me to dream again. It would be a shame to not learn something new just because I felt intimidated by the process. At the very least, it would be an educational experience. So yeah, that’s my birthday gift to myself, since September is my birth month. I made a list of things I would need to get started and bought them all.

I bought a nice 5qt dutch oven through a seller I met at a cast iron enthusiasts group on Facebook and it was delivered last Monday. Really heavy piece of cookware but I can already see that it’s a great investment. Besides, I got it for a great price. The kitchen scale I ordered was delivered yesterday. Everything else will be delivered in the next few days. I didn’t want to go out to  buy supplies so I bought everything from local sellers online.

I guess learning how to bake bread is part of my commitment to my household that I will be more circumspect about what we eat. Bread from grocery stores are cheap and readily available but they’re also hardly bread anymore. All the good stuff from the flour had been removed mechanically or chemically and some nutrients individually added  back chemically. They’re over-processed and already has a lot of ingredients that traditionally aren’t used to make bread. That’s the major reason why I want to learn how to make bread. The other reason is because I hope that I can learn to make something with my hands that connects me to real food culture. Not something we outsourced to large corporations but something actually done by hands, lovingly and with great effort.

Before I decided to try my hand at making bread, I’ve already stopped buying commercialized loaves. This whole quarantine period, the bread we’ve been eating at home came from friends who make them. Homemade bread may  be more expensive but they’re more delicious and a lot healthier than the factory-made ones.

I hope the whole wheat I ordered gets delivered today, I see that it’s already out for delivery. I’m eager to try and get my starter going.