Monday, April 2, 2018


When I first learned of genius entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold's endeavor to create THE Ultimate Work on Bread Baking, pouring thousands of dollars in his state-of-the-art scientific laboratory plus baking station, I was rather skeptical. After Modernist Cuisine now molecular baking?

But a presentation last summer at the Kneading Conference in Skowhegan/ME, with stunning photos of the process, was so convincing that I overcame my doubts (and qualms about spending so much money), and ordered my copy at Amazon.

The massive metal box set (History and Fundamentals, Ingredients, Techniques and Equipment, Recipes I and II, and a spiral bound kitchen manual with formulas) arrived in November, too heavy for one person to carry. Totally awed by those gorgeous, atlas-sized tomes, I asked myself the obvious question:

"Am I good enough for this Rolls Royce of baking books?"

"Am I good enough for this?"

Being the anal Virgo, instead of undisciplined rushing at the recipes, I started reading the first volume, History and Fundamentals. Though I'm generally not a great fan of non-fiction, remembering with a shudder the all-night-cramming before my final medical exams, I found the book a very pleasant read, interesting, full of fascinating facts, and beautifully illustrated.

My husband, a Vietnam veteran, travels to Asia every year, Singapore, Cambodia, and, always, Vietnam. Whether in Saigon or Danang, his favorite food are Banh Mi sandwiches, and he misses them here in Maine.

The toppings, meat, pickles, cucumbers, chili and cilantro, are not hard to come by, but the Banh Mi breads are a totally different matter. Though French baguettes are their ancestors, Banh Mi rolls are different, with a thinner crust and softer, fluffier crumb.

With Richard just back from Saigon, I decided on Banh Mi rolls, my first loaves to bake from Modernist Bread.

I had tried to make them before, using the only recipe (from Andrea Nguyen) that appears to be circulating in the internet. It wasn't bad, but, according to my husband (and my own memory from my trip to Vietnam years ago), it wasn't right, either, no crackly crust, and too chewy.

For many of Myhrvold's breads you can choose between two or (even three) different formulas, a classic version, a "best" version, and a "modernist" approach (with unusual enhancements, like gelatin).

But for Banh Mi, there is only one recipe.

Banh Mi recipe page

Though I often tweak formulas according to my own preferences, this time I didn't not stray from the Modernist's path, awed by the expertise of the authors. I wondered a bit about the shortening (or lard) in the bread - no fat in French baguettes, and why would bakers in a poor Asian country add a costly enrichment to their dough?

Instead repeating the mixing procedures and different steps for shaping, and proofing in every formula, Modernist Bread refers to detailed instructions in volume 3 (Techniques and Equipment). Fine.

But would it have killed them (or taken up too much space) to put oven temperatures and baking times into the recipes? You had to look under "filone entry in French Lean Bread Baking Times and Temperatures", several pages back, to find them - or not, since there was no filone in the list!

And why is cold bulk fermentation only very briefly and cursorily mentioned as an option? Instead, the Techniques section offered retardation of the shaped breads, along with fermentation at different room temperatures. Great, if you bake only one loaf - or have a walk-in refrigerator!

I started my mixing process, following the Modernist Bread's instructions - and was confronted with my first question: "add salt and mix on medium-low speed to low gluten development; add melted shortening or lard, and mix on medium speed to full gluten development."

How do I gauge low gluten development? I added the shortening after I mixed in the salt, drizzling it slowly into the mixer bowl. But, alas, my gluten development was faster, my dough did not welcome the greasy addition, resisting its incorporation, and, instead, swishing the liquid fat all around in the bowl.

It took a long time of mixing, until the dough looked somewhat homogeneous - but it was still coated in grease!

The dough resisted the incorporation of fat

No help for that, I had to trust in the mitigating effect of long fermentation (I did the cold bulk), especially since my 7-qt Kitchen Aid, deciding, "enough is enough", switched itself off to avoid overheating.

Everything else, shaping and proofing, went according to plan, until it was time to bake.

Modernist Bread pooh-poohs every steaming measure we poor hobby bakers are able to employ, except for using a Dutch oven or a covered baker. Tough luck for home-based micro-bakeries like mine that need to process more than one loaf at a time!

I guess I have to live with my guilt of using my modest, pebble filled steam pan.

In the "French Lean Bread Baking Temperatures and Times" table I found only temperature for baking (470ºF/245ºC), not for preheating the oven. I remembered having come across it somewhere in the Technique volume, but couldn't find that paragraph again.

Assuming 500ºF would be okay, I preheated my oven (which keeps the correct temperature), with baking stone and steaming device in place. According to the time table, the small baguettes should be baked for 15 minutes with steam, and 10 minutes without, at 470ºF.

But when I checked after 15 minutes, to remove the steam pan, they were already fully baked, with an interior temperature of 211ºF.

Not a Banh Mi at all!

The baguettes looked okay from the outside, though the crust was not crackly. But when we cut the baguettes in halves to make sandwiches, we were in for a big disappointment. Instead of airy and fluffy, the crumb was dense and chewy.

And worse - they didn't taste like Banh Mi at all, more like brioche (made with shortening instead of butter).

We ate our sandwiches, grumbling, and I was sorely tempted to throw the remaining two loaves in the trash - something I hardly ever do with my bread, even if it's burnt, or otherwise malfatti.

In the end the frugal housewife prevailed - I cut off the bread crusts and ground them into crumbs. And worked the loaves into a really nice bread pudding!

Successfully recycled - Leek Bread Pudding, made of Banh Mi rolls

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


Hier geht's zur deutschen Version dieses Posts

To mathematicians the Greek letter π (Pi) is the symbol for the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. This number is so important that it has its own holiday day: Pi Day.

Pi Day is March 14, since π starts with 3.14... and continues, irrationally, ever after. (But don't despair: for your daily use you can get by with just the first six numbers: 3.14159).

Not only mathematicians observe Pi Day, bakers honor it, too. After all, the Greek letter sounds in English like pastry and, with the help of a little "e", it easily turns into pie.

Though never a great ace in math, I'm all for celebrating such a meaningful holiday.

No spring in sight!

Here in Maine we still have one snowstorm ("Nor'easter") chasing the other. Therefore, only a cozy comfort-food-pie would do. (My husband's provocative suggestion, Cherry Pie, faced an instant rebuttal).

But Coconut Cream Pie met with wholehearted enthusiasm from all sides.

The custard filling takes a little effort, but it is soooo worth it! Cook's Illustrated's classic is by far the best Coconut Cream Pie we ever had. Highly satisfying, but not so rich that you feel stuffed for the whole day.

In fact, we had to pull ourselves together not to devour the whole thing!

The animal crackers in the crust don't contain a lot of fat or sugar. Graham crackers are a possible substitute, but don't use richer cookies. I reduced the amount of sugar in the filling by 25% - the pie is sweet enough.

Since we are empty-nesters, I made two small pies (with 2/3 of the recipe amount) in 6-inch/15-cm ø aluminum foil pans. If you take those thin-walled pans, you have to place them on a baking sheet to avoid over-browning.

The best Coconut Cream Pie we ever had!

COCONUT CREAM PIE  (adapted from Cook's Illustrated)

(One 9-inch/23-cm pie or three small (6-inch/15-cm) pies)

170 g animal crackers (or graham crackers)
12 g/2 tbsp unsweetened shredded coconut
13 g/1 tbsp sugar
57 g unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1 (13 1/2-oz) can/404 g coconut milk
246 g/1 cup whole milk
51 g/½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
75 g sugar, plus
12 g/1 tbsp sugar
⅜ tsp table salt
85 g/5 egg yolks
42 g cornstarch
28 g unsalted butter, cut into 2 pieces
1 tsp vanilla extract

Whipped Cream Topping
357 g/1 ½ cups heavy cream (cold)
24 g/2 tbsp sugar
½ tsp vanilla extract
6 g/1 tbsp unsweetened shredded coconut, toasted golden brown

Kekse, Kokosraspel, Butter und Zucker für die Piekruste

Preheat oven to 325ºF/160ºC, adjusting rack to lower middle position.

In food processor, pulse animal crackers, coconut and sugar until finely ground. Transfer to medium bowl, add melted butter and stir well, until all crumbs are evenly moistened.

Stir melted butter into crumbs until no dry spots remain

Transfer crumbs to a 9-inch/23-cm ø Pyrex pie pan (or 3 small 6-inch/15-cm aluminum pans). Using a measuring cup or small ramekin, press crumbs evenly into bottom and up sides.

Press crumbs evenly into bottom and up sides of the pie pan

Place pie pan(s) in the oven (put aluminum pans on a baking sheet!) and bake for about 15 minutes, rotating pie(s) halfway through, until crust is fragrant and medium brown.

Let crust(s) cool on a wire rack (about 30 minutes).

Coconut milk mixture

For the filling, bring coconut milk, whole milk, coconut, 75 g sugar, and salt to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring now and then.

Mix egg yolks with cornstarch and sugar

In a medium bowl, whisk egg yolks with cornstarch and remaining 1 tbsp sugar until well combined.

Whisking constantly, gradually pour 1 cup hot milk mixture over yolk mixture until blended. Gradually whisk in remaining milk mixture in 3-4 additions until well combined.

Egg yolk/milk mixture

Return egg yolk/milk mixture to sauce pan, and cook, whisking constantly, until it thickens and comes to a boil, about 1 minute. (To determine whether a full boil is reached, stop stirring; you should see large bubbles bursting on the surface.)

Off the heat, whisk in butter and vanilla

Remove pot from heat, and whisk in butter pieces and vanilla until butter is melted and fully incorporated.

Pour filling into crust...

Pour hot filling into cooled pie crust(s), smoothing surface with rubber spatula. Press a pieces of plastic wrap directly against surface (to prevent a skin from forming).

...then cover with plastic foil, pressed directly on surface

 Refrigerate pie(s) until firm, at least 3 hours or overnight.

Spread topping over the pie, then sprinkle it with toasted coconut

Just before serving, whip heavy cream with sugar and vanilla, using handheld mixer, until soft peaks form, 1 1/2 bis 2 minutes. Spread topping over pie filling. Sprinkle with toasted coconut.

Coconut Cream Pie

TIP: Pie leftovers keeps, covered, for 2-3 days in the fridge. If you bake several small pies, like I did, add topping to each pie just before serving.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


Hier geht's zur deutschen Version dieses Posts (folgt noch)

"Would you like to see my new book?" was the message from Heike Kevenhörster, a friend and former colleague from Public Address Press Agency in Hamburg (where I counseled students for many years, as online-"Dear Abby").

"Craft Cocktails by Val"
Two weeks later I found my copy of "Craft Cocktails by Val: Drinks Inspired by Hillary Rodham Clinton", Heike's self-published book, in the mail.

Bartender "Val", the alter ego of Hillary Clinton, played by herself in an episode of "Saturday Night Life", doles out drinks and sympathy to a full-campaign-mode, hyper (and slightly tipsy) "Hillary Clinton" (played by Kate McKinnon).

This hilarious skit, and the catchphrases thrown at us during last year's presidential election campaign, were the inspirations for the cocktails Heike presents in her book.

Hillary fans will appreciate the "Glass Ceiling" (with St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur and lemon balm), "Woman Card" (with raspberry liqueur and cream) or "Shoulder Shimmy" (with gin and cranberry juice)

But her opponents can have their cocktails too: "The Swamp" (with gin and caperberries) and "Bye, bye, Bernie" (with vodka and Blue Curaçao).

Heike, who studied British literature, journalism and history, loves cooking for family and friends, but, also, worked for several years as weekend-chef at Karo Ecke, in one of Hamburg's trendy quarters. One of her hobbies: creating new cocktails.

Heike Kevenhörster (photo: Public Address)
Like many Europeans, she didn't miss a beat of the innuendos of our (seemingly never-ending) election campaign.

Heike dedicated her book "to the 65.844.610 people who voted for the first woman to win the popular vote for President of the United States of America".

Whimsical photo collages, created by American artist Sarah Sole in real time during Clinton's campaign, capture the spirit of each of the 47 cocktails, and make the book a fun read.

Normally, this blog is devoted to my love for baking, especially breads. But "Craft Cocktails by Val" tempted me not only to spend (an outrageous amount of) money on fancy liqueurs, but, also, post about one of Heike's crafty cocktails.

Though I mostly drink beer - the best of all husbands gets migraines from wine, but can split a Dos XX or Guinness with me - I do like a cocktail, when we are in a restaurant. The liquor bottles in our pantry are almost solely used for cooking or baking, and last for a long time.

(This was not always the case: when I was still living in Germany, the growing pile of oversized juvenile sneakers in my mudroom was mysteriously connected to a shrinking level of cooking liquors in my kitchen!)

For Heike's delicious take on a "Long Island Ice Tea", I only needed to buy a bottle of gin, everything else I already had in my pantry. And we drink Earl Grey tea every day.

Grey Gardens

GREY GARDENS (adapted from "Craft Cocktails by Val" by Heike Kevenhörster & Sarah Sole)
(2 servings)

2/3 oz (2 cl) vodka
2/3 oz (2 cl) gin
2/3 oz (2 cl) white rum
2/3 oz (2 cl) tequila blanco
2/3 oz (2 cl) Cointreau (I used triple sec)
1 tsp Earl Grey tea leaves
1 oz (3 cl) fresh lime juice
2/3 oz (2 cl) simple syrup*)
2 oz (6 cl) Coca Cola (or to taste)
ice cubes
2 lime slices, for garnish

*) In small sauce pan, bring to a boil 1/2 cup water with 1/2 cup sugar, stirring, until sugar has dissolved. Let cool. The syrup can be stored in a jar with lid for at least 2 weeks in the fridge.

Vodka, gin, white rum and tequila are infused with Earl Grey tea leaves

In a small teapot (or bowl), combine vodka, gin, rum, and tequila. Add Earl Grey leaves to a tea filter or small strainer (I used the filter of my regular teapot), and let them steep in the liquid for 4 minutes.

Tea-infused alcohol mixture

Remove the filter or strainer, and pour the infused alcohol in a shaker. Add Cointreau, lime juice, and simple syrup, and shake on ice. (Or, like I did, simply refrigerate the teapot with the mixture until using).

Fill two Collins glasses (high, straight glasses) with ice cubes, add the tea-infused alcohol and top with coke (to taste, depending on how sweet you like your drink.)

Serve, garnished with a slice of lime.


Friday, October 27, 2017


Hier geht's zur deutschen Version dieses Posts

Whenever I'm visiting my hometown Hamburg, I check out new bakeries. Two years ago I noticed people lining up in front of Bäckerei Jochen Gaues, in Eppendorf quarter, where my Mom lives around the corner.

Taking this as a good omen, I joined the waiting line. The shelves full of loaves and rolls looked promising, all with fairly dark crusts - boldly baked, as Ken Forkish ("Flour, Water, Salt and Yeast') would call it. A paradise for crust lovers!

Like Forkish, Jochen Gaues is a purist baker, his breads are made with flour, water, salt and yeast. No dough enhancers, no preservatives, no artificial flavoring. Only sourdough and passion for his craft. And he shared his recipes in a beautiful baking book, too.

His sunflower seed rolls are hearty, crusty and delicious. (I tweaked the recipe a bit, of course, as I always do). The crumb is rather light and more airy than chewy. You can enjoy them with cold cuts, German meat salad, honey or jam. 

The rolls have a thin, crisp crust and a somewhat airy crumb

SUNFLOWER SEED SQUARES  (adapted from Jochen Gaues' "Brot")
(8 square rolls)

  10 g/0.3 oz recently refreshed rye mother starter (100%)
  10 g/0.4 oz water, lukewarm
  10 g/0.4 oz rye flour

  25 g/0.9 oz cracked rye
  25 g/0.9 oz flaxseed
  50 g/1.8 oz water 

Final dough
  30 g/1.1 oz starter (all)
367 g/12.9 oz water (95°F/35ºC)
    3 g/0.1 oz instant yeast
475 g/15.8 oz bread flour
  50 g/1.8 oz old sourdough bread, ground and toasted
  25 g/0.9 oz medium rye flour
  25 g/0.9 oz sunflower seeds, toasted
  14 g/0.5 oz sugar
  14 g/0.5 oz salt

egg white, mixed with a little bit of water, for brushing
sunflower seeds, for topping

Seed soaker and rye starter

In the morning, mix starter ingredients in small bowl. Leave, covered, at room temperature for 4 - 6 hours, or until it passes the float test (a teaspoonful should float in water).

In second small bowl, stir together soaker ingredients. (This extra step is not absolutely necessary, but hard ingredients like rye chops and flax seeds benefit from longer soaking.)

In the afternoon, mix final dough at low speed until all flour is hydrated, 1 - 2 minutes. Let dough rest 5 minutes, then knead at medium-low speed for 6 minutes. Dough will be soft and sticky, but pull back from sides of bowl. 

Dough will be sticky, but pull back from sides of bowl

Transfer dough to lightly oiled work surface. With oiled hands, pat and pull it into a rough square. Fold dough from top and bottom in thirds, like a business letter, then the same way from both sides.

Pat and pull dough into a square...
...then fold in thirds, top down, and bottom up... a business letter.
Repeat folding from both sides...
... until you have a neat package

Cover dough package with the empty mixing bowl (if necessary, re-oil works bench). Let it rest for 10 minutes.

Repeat stretching and folding the dough 3 more times, at 10 minute intervals. It will gain strength and starting to resist. Place dough in oiled container, cover, and refrigerate overnight (a square container helps with shaping later).

...and after fermentation: it has doubled in volume

Remove dough from fridge 2 hours before using. It should have doubled in volume.

Preheat oven to 475ºF/240ºC (no steam).

Place dough on a lightly floured work surface, sprinkle with a little flour (it will still be a bit sticky), and gently pull and pat it into a rectangle, then cut into 8 square pieces. Place squares on parchment lined (or perforated) baking sheet.

The rolls are cut, not shaped

Brush rolls with egg white, then sprinkle each with sunflower seeds, gently pressing them down to stick. Cover, and proof for about 25 - 30 minutes, or until a finger-poked dimple remains visible. (Since the dough is cut, not shaped, it is puffy and doesn't need to rise much more - basically only until the oven is hot).

Ready for the oven

Bake rolls for about 20 minutes (rotating them halfway through), or until they are a dark golden brown, and register at least 200ºF/93ºC on an instant read thermometer.

Freshly baked Sunflower Seed Squares

BreadStorm users (also of the free version) can download the formula here.

Monday, October 16, 2017


Hier geht's zur deutschen Version dieses Posts

Before my friend "The Rye Baker" Stanley Ginsberg went on his mission promoting European rye breads to American bakers, he had published another remarkable baking book: "Inside the Jewish Bakery - Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking".

I was among his test bakers. One of my test recipes was the Polish Potato Bread - Poylner Kartoffelbroyt - with its unusually high potato content an interesting recipe, but, as I soon realized, somewhat challenging in its preparation.

My first Post-It notes about the recipe

I had problems gauging the necessary water amount, first the dough seemed too dry, then turned sticky from the potatoes.

Not only that: Stanley had warned of dire consequences if you tried taming the gooey dough with more flour - it would turn into a brick!

Somewhat intimidated, I jotted down on my note pad: "No shaping possible".

In the end, somehow, I managed to get the sticky glob into the pan. Or I wouldn't have (later) rejoiced in its "excellent taste!"

At that time I had no whatsoever experience with stickier doughs. Meanwhile, I know better how to deal with the tricky potato bread - the extra flour needs to go on the work surface, under the dough, not into it! 

 Potato Bread tastes especially good when toasted

The excellent taste encouraged me to bake the Potato Bread again and again, while tweaking the recipe a little bit, especially withholding some of the water to (slowly) add it during the mixing later.

Allowing the dough to rest in the fridge overnight, I could reduce the amount of yeast a bit.

This favorite loaf really deserves to be presented at Zorra's World Bread Day 2017,

Golden brown and wonderfully moist

POLISH POTATO BREAD (adapted from Stanley Ginsberg's: "Inside the Jewish Bakery")

227 g/8 oz Russet or Idaho potatoes, peeled or unpeeled *), cut in chunks
170 g/12 oz potato cooking water
4 g/1 tsp instant yeast
250 g/8.8 oz first clear or high-gluten flour
34 g/1.2 oz whole wheat flour
9 g/0.3 oz salt
vegetable oil, for brushing

*) I like using local red potatoes with thin skins and don't peel those

Drain cooked potatoes and reserve 170 g of the cooking water

Cook potatoes in about 2 cups of unsalted water until soft, then drain, reserving 170 g/6 oz of the cooking water. Mash potatoes, and let both cool to room temperature.

Our local red potatoes don't need to be peeled

Mix mashed potatoes, flours, yeast, and 150 g/5 oz of the reserved cooking water at low speed, until all flour is hydrated, 1-2 minutes. (Dough might seem a bit dry at first, but potatoes will add more moisture).

In the beginning the dough seems relatively dry...

.... but soon becomes sticky from the potatoes

Add salt, and knead at medium-low speed for 10-12 minutes, very slowly adding remaining 20 g/2 oz water. Dough will soon become (and remain) sticky, but in the end pull back from sides of bowl. Don't add more flour, if you don't want to end up with a brick!)

Ready for its slumber in the fridge

Place dough in oiled container, cover, and place overnight in the fridge. (Using a square container helps with shaping the bread later.)

Overnight the dough has doubled in volume

Remove dough from refrigerator 2 hours before using. It should have doubled in volume, but will still be sticky. Grease a 9 x 5-inch/23 x 13 cm loaf pan.

The dough will still be sticky - flour your hands and bench knife!

Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface. With floured hands (or bench knife), pat and push it into a rough rectangle. Lift one shorter end up and fold it over a little bit, pressing gently down to seal. Continue rolling up dough in the same way into a log.

Place loaf, seam-side down, in the prepared pan

Re-flour your hands, (or bench knife), and - this is the tricky part - lift the loaf cylinder up and place it, seam-side down, into prepared pan.

Brush top of loaf with oil, cover pan, and proof until top of dough has reached rim of pan, and a dimple, pressed with your finger, will not fill up at once (about 45 - 60 minutes).

Preheat oven to 375ºF/190ºC (no steam).  

Ready to be baked

Score loaf lengthwise (snipping with scissors works better for sticky a dough than a lamé.)

Bake bread for 20 minutes (no steaming), rotate pan 180 degrees for even browning, and continue to bake for about 20 minutes more, or until loaf is golden brown (internal temperature should be at least 195ºF/90ºC.)

Freshly baked Polish Potato Bread

If you like your crust to stay crispier, leave bread in switched-off oven, with door slightly ajar, for an additional 10 minutes to dry. Then turn loaf out onto rack and let it cool completely.

STORAGE: The bread keeps for at least 3 days, wrapped, at room temperature. It, also, freezes well. If you slice it before freezing it, you can take out single slices for toasting.

Baked with German flour type 1050, the crumb looks a little darker

BreadStorm users (also of the free version) can download the formula here: