Accidentally Cooking

Documenting my mistakes in the garden, kitchen and pantry


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Challah Bread

Fresh off my success with the Apple Sauce and Oat Bread, I decided to try my hand at something a bit more traditional. At first I looked at some recipes for the bread machine but I kept coming back to loaves that would have needed some handling. To me, putting a bunch of ingredients into the bread machine, only to take the dough ball out later to kneed it or shape it, doesn’t save me any effort. If I’m putting all the ingredients into a machine, it might as well be my wife’s trusty Kitchen Aid mixer.

The bread type that I decided I wanted to make was Challah. I found a very interesting recipe online that caught my eye because it used some orange juice in place of plain water. I was sold, even though I didn’t expect the small amount of juice to produce any noticeable orange-y flavor. I can’t help it, I just like jamming fruits and juices into recipes where you don’t expect them. I’m a maniac.

I didn’t make any major changes or substitutions to the recipe, so I’m reproducing it here as a relatively faithful, albeit terse, paraphrasing of the original. I did leave out the poppy seeds, as a matter of personal preference. I’ll give a review of my results, and suggest you go read the original recipe for more information,

Challah Bread

  • Package of dry bread yeast
  • 1 Tsp sugar
  • 1/2 Cup warm water
  • 1/3 Cup orange juice
  • 1/4 Cup extra virgin olive oil (+ extra)
  • 3 Eggs
  • 1/4 Cup honey
  • 1-1/2 Tsp sea salt
  • 4-1/2 Cups all-purpose flour (+ extra)
  1. Combine the yeast, water and sugar in your mixing bowl, mixed gently. Wait 5 minutes for the yeast to proof and foam up.
  2. Whisk in the orange juice, olive oil, 2 of the eggs, the honey and the sea salt
  3. Using the bread hook of your mixer, begin beating the mixture. Add in flour, 1 cup at a time, waiting between cups to make sure that the result is smooth.
  4. When all the flour is in, mix for 5 more minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic
  5. Pull the dough out of the mixing bowl onto a floured surface. Kneed by hand for two minutes
  6. Form the dough into a ball and put it into a lightly oiled bowl, turning to coat with oil
  7. Let the dough rise until doubled in size, 1-2 hours. Punch down.
  8. Let the dough rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour more. Punch down.
  9. On a floured surface, cut the dough ball into 4 even pieces. Roll each out into strands.
  10. Braid the 4 strands into a round. Place it on a greased cookie sheet.
  11. Whisk the remaining egg, and wash the surface of the bread with egg. Allow the loaf to sit for 30 minutes more.
  12. Preheat the oven to 350F.
  13. Bake the bread for 30-40 minutes, or until done.

Results

I’m pretty happy with this bread. It looks great, smells fantastic, and tastes like Challah.

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There’s something not quite right about the texture of it, however. It’s too….floury, and not smooth enough. Maybe I added too much flour, or maybe I didn’t kneed enough or didn’t let it rise long enough, or something. The recipe calls for 4.5 cups of flour, so that’s what I added to the mixing bowl. I don’t know if that last half cup was supposed to be reserved for flouring my countertop. Maybe I worked too much extra flour into the dough when I was kneeding it. In the pictures from the original recipe, the dough appears to be stickier than it ever was for me. Next time, I’ll follow my gut and cut down the flour to 4 cups even, to see if that helps.

Dana also commented that she thought the bread could have used a little more salt. I thought it was fine in this department, but I could be convinced to add a little extra next time.

Besides the texture issue, which all but disappears in the presence of some butter, this loaf of bread was a big success. I’m really looking forward to figuring out what my next loaf is going to be.

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Simple Mead 2

My first Simple Mead isn’t done yet, so I’m not sure how it’s going to ultimately turn out. That’s enough of a success story for me, so I went ahead and started another batch of a simple mead. This time, I used some different yeast and some different techniques, to contrast with my first effort.

I was thinking about doing something more complicated, like a bochet (caramelized honey mead) or some kind of melomel (mead with fruit/juice), but it occurs to me that I still don’t have a good baseline understanding of mead making. Since I’m not versed in the basics, I can’t attempt an improvement or complication on the recipe with any confidence. What I need to do is stick with the basics, for now.

Simple Mead 2

  • 1 Quart Honey [1]
  • Water [2]
  • Yeast nutrient
  • Yeast [3]

Sterilize your fermenter and all equipment. Add the honey to your fermenter [4]. Add water to bring the total volume up to around 1 and a quarter gallons of must [5]. Put on the lid and shake vigorously to aerate. Add your yeast and yeast nutrient to the must. Cover the fermenter and attach the airlock.

Let sit, in a warm room for 3 weeks or until primary fermentation is complete [6]. Rack to a secondary fermentation to age until its ready to drink.

First Rack

When primary was complete, I racked to secondary stealing a sip along the way. The mead is definitely young, though noticeably smoother and less harsh than the first batch.

Because my first racking of the prior batch was so sloppy, I needed to rack again to tertiary. I tasted it again along the way, but even after two months my Simple Mead 1 is harsher, less floral and has a little less honey character than this second batch is on the way into secondary. I suspect that the “Sweet Mead” yeast just produces a result that is smoother out of primary.  I may stick with that (or, at least, steer clear of the Champagne yeast) for the next few batches.

Here is a picture of the two batches, Simple Mead 1 on the left and Simple Mead 2 on the right.

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Notes

  1. I used a combination of left-over “Local Honey” from my first batch and some crystallized clover honey from the back of my closet. The honey and a little bit of water used to loosen it up, came out to just over a quart by volume. I didn’t weigh the honey and don’t have a hydrometer, so I can’t tell you exactly what the sugar content or starting gravity is.
  2. I used bottled spring water.
  3. The yeast I used this time was WLP-720 “Sweet Mead” from White Labs. I didn’t realize at the time, but the vial I bought was after it’s sell-by date. I made a small starter with water, honey and a dash of nutrient, and allowed to sit out, covered, overnight. By the next morning the starter was bubbling and active, so it was ready to use. This yeast has an attenuation of 75% or more, so I am expecting the finished product to be quite sweet.
  4. I heated the honey up in a double-boiler arrangement to get it loose enough to pour. Some recipes require the honey to be boiled, but I’ve been advised not to heat the honey hotter than 165°F for risk of losing quality.
  5. I wanted a little bit extra, because I lose a bit on every racking. When it gets into secondary, I’m sure I’ll have much closer to 1 gallon.
  6. It took well over 3 weeks for this batch to finish primary, and even then I’m not convinced that it was 100% complete, but I had a limited window of time to rack it, so that’s when it happened. I suspect the Sweet Mead yeast is just a little bit less vigorous than the Champagne yeast and other yeasts I’ve used for other things.


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Mid-March Garden Prep

I am just bursting at the seams with anticipation for the coming growing season. Progress is happening, slowly but surely, on a number of fronts. Also some of my plans are starting to crystallize as I purchase and prepare to purchase seeds and plants.

Cherries

The cherry trees are looking great, with plenty of buds on each. The Black Tartarian tree is looking healthier than the Stella, with more growth through last season and more buds. The Stella looked like some of its buds last year had been stripped off at some point, which meant less growth through the season and fewer buds over the winter. I didn’t fertilize last year, on recommendation from several sources, but I’m looking into some kind of fertilization this year. Fertilization may be indicated this year because the trees are more established and because there was relatively little growth of twigs and shoots last year. A few sources online have suggested I put down something to feed the trees before the buds open, I am still trying to figure out what and how much.

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We’ve had a few warm days here and there in March, and I’m really hoping that my Cherry buds don’t start trying to open prematurely.

Blueberries

I took a pH test of the soil in the blueberry pots, and the result was far too high. The soil was nearly neutral (7.0) when Blueberries seem to prefer soil which is acidic (5.5 or thereabouts). Blueberries need Iron for health and production of large crops of berries, but the roots can’t absorb and transport the iron unless there’s some acidity around to help. Some sources suggest using Iron Sulfate as a fertilizer, to both add extra iron to the soil AND produce sulfer-related acids to decrease the pH. I couldn’t find that, so I just picked up a bag of elemental sulfur soil acidifer. I added something like a cup and a half per pot, mixed in with the top level of soil (being careful not to disturb the shallow roots). The sulfur requires some water and some time to turn into acids and permeate the soil, so I’ll test the pH again later and see how things are progressing.

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Garlic

The garlic survived the winter with ease, and now is starting to grow a little bit when the days are warmish. Even the Leningrad garlic, which probably the slowest to sprout in November and had me worried that it was dead on arrival, is poking up with some deep green leaves. The German White garlic, which had the largest cloves but also the fewest, has the biggest leaves and is looking like it’s ready to explode when the weather gets warm.

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Miscellanea

Some Daffodils and Tulips are starting to sprout in one of the flower beds. Some leaves had blown into the bed during a recent storm, so when I raked the leaves out I saw the wonderful little green shoots. It doesn’t look like all the bulbs we planted survived the winter, but that just means we have some space to put more flowers this year. We can’t (or, shouldn’t) eat these flowers, but I mention them here anyway because I’m super-excited about anything that appears to be alive.

I have some Rosemary and Mint in pots that I kept over the winter. I was hoping both of them would come back but I’m not seeing any signs of life  yet. I’m making sure the pots are getting as much light as we can get on these short, dreary winter days. I’m also giving them a little water when the days warm up. If they do come through, I may try to find a permanent in-ground home for them this year.

I tried to identify the large maple tree in my front yard, and I think it’s a Black Maple. At least, I think so. Black Maple is one of the two species that can be tapped for maple syrup, although the time to do so has just barely passed. When some leaves come out I’m going to try to confirm my identification of the tree and maybe next winter I’ll try to tap it for some syrup.


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Apple Fruit Leather

I wrote this post last year towards the end of apple season but never posted it. Here it is now, to fill space.

I’m wracking my brain trying to think of a substance less appetizing than leather. Honestly, have you ever tasted leather? Without going into much detail about how we know this, leather isn’t food and it tastes terrible. This is why it always amazes me when people refer to dehydrated fruit puree as “fruit leather”. Sure, they’re talking about the texture, not the flavor. I know that. But it seems weird to name such a tasty food product after something that is so decidedly not “tasty”. I’ll call it “Fruit Leather” because that’s what everybody else calls it (and the other options in the thesaurus are even worse). Just keep in mind that I do so under protest.

Dana was all like “Your preserving stuff is taking up too much space in the fridge”. And I was all like “whatever, woman, step off!”. I mean, I didn’t say it out loud. She’d have been totally pissed if I did. Can you imagine? I’d still be sleeping outside.

Needing to clear some space in the fridge and not having any other great ideas, I pulled out a container of apple sauce and dumped it into the dehydrator.

Apple Leather

  1. Apple Sauce
  2. Vegetable Oil

I know there are ways to do this in the oven, but I used the dehydrator. If you don’t have a dehydrator sitting around, don’t rush out to get one just for this project. But I did have one, and it was convenient enough.

Use a fruit leather tray, which probably comes with your dehydrator. Put a small amount of vegetable oil on a napkin or piece of cloth and rub down the tray. A thin layer of the oil helps to prevent sticking later. Spread your apple sauce or other prepared fruit puree on the tray and put it into the dehydrator. Follow any instructions to create fruit leather.

The instructions for mine said to dehydrate at 135° for 4-10 hours. I did this in the evening after work, so I didn’t have that much time. I did it at 135° for about 5 hours and it wasn’t done before we went to bed. So I turned the temperature down to 115° and went to bed.

When I checked first thing in the morning, the leather was done.

Results

It’s hard to argue with how easy this process is. It’s up there with creating apple chips or even dried tomatoes. Put it in the dehydrator, set it up according to the instructions, and completely ignore it for a few hours. The hardest part of the whole process is spreading the apple sauce out evenly so it dries evenly.

I didn’t add any sugar or seasonings. The sauce was plenty sweet enough all by itself (I used Fuji, Stayman-Winesap and mostly Braeburn apples). Next time I may add some cinnamon or pie spices to the mix for a little extra holiday flair. I may also try to mix in some other fruit puree if I can find something that I like at this time of year.


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Simple Mead 1

With few exceptions, I generally don’t like wine. I’m working to develop more of a taste for it, but in general I find most wines to be absolutely, unforgivably, boring. Yes, I recognize that different varieties of grapes, grown in different places and on different years can produce different wines (with subtle complexity, no less!). Yes, I recognize that many other details may be changed, such as how and for how long the wine is aged, can also change the character of the wine. But the reality is that all these wines are all made from simple grapes, often single-variety, single-farm, single-season. Wine blends might seem like the solution, but most blends are extremely conservative: Two varieties of closely-related red grapes, from a single farm in a single year. Capital B boring.

Grape wine has been done to death. It’s like digging a hole that is very deep, but not very wide. Yes, we’ve found some interesting things down this hole, but there are plenty of other places worth digging but so few people are doing it.

Some of the favorite wines I’ve ever had were rare and different. I had a cherry wine that I really liked. I’ve tasted some spiced wines, including one spiced apple wine that I still remember fondly. These kinds of things, while rare, I always find to be fun and interesting. If I want more exciting new things, I need to make them myself.

Why Mead?

The short answer: I like honey, a lot.

The longer answer: I really like honey, and oranges are in season but I’ve been having trouble finding oranges at a decent price and of a quality I would use for wine. I’ve had some commercial meads before, but I found them to be lousy: A winery offering a single bottom-shelf type of mead to make it look like they are more diverse than they actually are (“yes we have mead, but have you seen our 200 varieties of grape wine up here?“). I had always sort of suspected that I might really like mead, if I could find something that cost more than 12$ per bottle because somebody put effort into it.

I had a conversation with a friend who has been making mead for a long time, and here is what she has to say:

One of the cool things about mead is that you soon find yourself making things that cannot be purchased at any price.

Also, if you consider brewing to be an investment, the “return” in terms of comparable market value for a commercial product is better for mead than any other type of home brewing.

10 years ago, you almost wouldn’t have been able to find any mead on the market, and what you found was probably of dubious quality. Mead is a bit more common today, but if you want a really good mead you’re going to be paying top dollar. Recently mead has been more in vogue and meaderies seem to be popping up here and there. It’s still hard to find a decent selection (especially in good-ole’ PA). Again, it seems that if I want something, I need to make it myself.

I’ve sampled a few recipes from around the internet, done a little bit of research, and put together a recipe for my first batch of simple mead. First I’ll talk about some equipment, then I’ll talk about the mead.

Equipment

As mentioned in my posts about Cherry Melomel, I have some equipment already: airlocks, a syphon, sanitizer, and a bottle of yeast nutrient. To get started on mead, I went out and picked up some glass 1-gallon jugs.

1 gallon glass jugs are reasonably cheap but because they are big, fragile and relatively heavy shipping costs can be prohibitive if you want to buy them on the internet. Shipping on a jug or a box of them can more than double your price! Larger 5- and 6.5-gallon carboys are likewise even heavier and more expensive to ship.

Many people I’ve seen on the internet will put tape on the jug, or tape paper to it to write on details of the recipe: What it is, when it was started, what was the starting gravity, etc. Having lots of time on my hands because of the snow, I decided to do something a little bit more involved. We ran down to the local craft store and picked up a bottle of Glass Etching Cream. This is an extremely nasty chemical that is one of the few things crazy enough to dissolve glass. Scientists use glass to store acids, flesh-eating bacteria and rocket fuel. No matter. Glass etching cream eats right through it. To etch glass, you spread the cream on the surface and wash it off a few seconds later.

On each of the four jugs I etched measurement lines at quart intervals and a unique symbol which I can use to identify the jug: A square, a triangle, a trapezoid and a nabla. Now, when all the jugs are filled with nondescript brownish liquid, I can look at the etched shape, compare to my notes, and figure out exactly what is inside.

I also picked up a 2-gallon food grade fermenting bucket, to serve as my primary fermenter, especially for brews where I have chunks of fruit to be included.

Now let’s talk about the Mead.

Simple Mead 1

  1. 1 Quart Honey (approx 3lbs) [1]
  2. 3 Quarts water (enough, when combined with the honey, to make 1 gallon total)
  3. 2 Medium oranges
  4. 1 Handful of raisins [2]
  5. Yeast [3]
  6. Yeast nutrient [4]

Sanitize all your equipment beforehand. Peel and roughly slice the oranges [5]. Add the orange slices, raisins, honey, water and yeast nutrient to the primary. Put on the lid and shake vigorously to mix and aerate. Pitch in your yeast, seal the container [6], add the airlock and set aside until primary fermentation is complete. I ended up waiting about 3 weeks, part of which we lost power (and the house got cold). When primary is complete, rack the mead to a new, sterile container for secondary fermentation and conditioning.

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I tasted the mead during the first racking. It’s good but a little sweeter than I expected. There were some off-flavors and a bit of alcohol “hotness”, which I expect to go away with a few months of aging. My racking wasn’t very clean, so I ended up with a bit of extra sediment that I will need to rack out, probably within the next month or so.

I’ll post updates along the way when I perform additional racks, bottle and finally drink this mead.

Notes

  1. I found a 5lb jug of “Local Honey” at a local farm market. That’s all it says on the jar, “Local Honey”. I don’t know what kinds of flowers it’s from, but it has an aroma reminiscent of alfalfa or buckwheat (it doesn’t have the dark color of buckwheat honey, however). Depending on the exact consistency of the honey, 1 pound is about one and a third cups. So three pounds of honey is about four cups (1 quart). On the internet, I’ve seen people do anything from one quart of honey per gallon (1:3) or one gallon of honey per 5-gallon carboy (1:4). For my purposes, I’m going to stick with about a 1:3 ratio until I get a hydrometer (or a scale) and can be a little bit more precise.
  2. Many recipes use raisins as a source of nutrients for the yeast, because honey doesn’t really have enough of the potassium or nitrogen to help keep the yeast healthy. I used raisins and a half-dose of chemical nutrient initially, and added another quarter dose of chemical nutrient about a week into the fermentation.
  3. I used the same Champagne yeast that I used for my Cherry Melomel and Cherry Cyser. It should be more than capable of fermenting to dryness. I’ve heard tell that this might not be a great choice, so in the future I’ll try different types.
  4. I’m looking at a staggered feeding schedule to keep the yeast healthier throughout the fermentation, produce fewer off-flavors, and hopefully produce a mead which doesn’t require so much aging to be drinkable. I added a half-dose of nutrient at the start, will add some about halfway through the fermentation, and will play things by ear after that.
  5. Many recipes I’ve seen involve slicing a single orange, peel and all, and throwing it into the fermenter. My oranges really were looking a little creepy on the outside, so I decided to cut off the peel, and just use the sliced innards of two oranges instead. The outer zest is where most of the flavor is, but the pulp and juice will add some much-needed nutrients and acid to (hopefully) keep the mead balanced. This isn’t intended to be an in-your-face Orange melomel, but the oranges will doubtlessly contribute to the flavor (and I don’t think an Orange Melomel would be bad, if that’s what it turned into).
  6. Yeast need oxygen to reproduce, and then then oxygen needs to be kept out to promote the anaerobic conversion of sugar to alcohol. My fermentation got off to a sluggish start, so I kept the bucket with the lid off (covered by a clean towel) for a few hours until the yeast became more active and the mixture built up a nice froth. After that, I put on the lid and airlock, and it’s been bubbling like a champ.