Friday, June 24, 2011

Homemade Pita Bread

Pita bread is one of those things that I always wanted to try making, but thought might be beyond my ability. When I realized the other day that I needed pita breads for dinner and had forgotten to buy them at the store, I figured I'd at least scope out some recipes. From what I read, it actually seemed pretty basic. So, I decided give it a whirl.
As you can see, it worked great! I did have one flop, where I discovered the key to getting that pocket to form is to just flop the prepared dough directly onto the cooking pan and then not touch it a bit (even if the circle gets a little wonky).

To compensate for my dislike of long knead times and lack of breadmaker - and the desire for some whole grains - I adapted this recipe to suit my needs. Here's my lazy kneader version:

1 cup + 2 Tbsp. water
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 1/2 tsp. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. active yeast

Mix water, sugar and yeast and let sit 10 minutes to proof. Add white and wheat flours, salt and olive oil. Mix into a shaggy ball. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit 20 minutes.
Pour dough out onto oiled board. Knead 2 minutes, then return to bowl. Cover and let sit about 1 hour or until dough is doubled.
Drop dough onto a lightly floured board. Flatten out gently into a rectangle and roll and into a 12-inch rope. Cut dough into 8 evenly sized pieces. Roll each into a ball. 
With a floured rolling pin, roll each ball into a 6-7 inch circle. Set aside on a lightly floured piece of parchment paper and cover with a damp tea towel. Let pitas rise about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 500 F. Carefully drop 2-3 pitas on a wire rack (I found just plopping them down straight off the parchment paper worked best). Bake 4-5 minutes until pitas are puffy and tops start to brown. Remove from oven and place pitas back under a damp kitchen towel until completely cooled and softened.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Lemon-Cranberry Bread

Last night I was craving something sweet. But there was no chocolate in the house (heaven forbid!) and not enough butter to make blondies or shortbread... but one thing we know I did have was lemons. I also happened to have some dried cranberries, so I decided to reinvent an old recipe I have for orange cranberry bread. The results were lovely - very bright, lemony and refreshing, yet sweet enough to hit the spot. (And it was just as good for breakfast as it was for dessert!)

The only thing I would do differently next time is reduce the cook time by 5-10 minutes (reflected in the recipe below) because I thought the edges were a touch dry. Note to self: lemon bread dough doesn't start out as dark as orange bread, so don't expect it to bake up as dark! Onto the recipe...

Lemon-Cranberry Bread

1/2 cup dried cranberries
2/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 3 lemons)

zest of 2 lemons
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 egg
2 Tbsp. salted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 325. Grease loaf pan.
Mix lemon juice and lemon zest. Add dried cranberries. Set aside for 10 minutes to allow cranberries to plump.
Mix flour, sugar, baking soda and baking powder together in a separate bowl.
In another bowl, beat egg. Add melted butter. Stir in lemon juice and cranberries. Then mix in flour mixture just until combined. (Dough will be stiff.)
Spoon dough into greased loaf pan and bake for 50-55 minutes or until toothpick inserted comes out clean.
Cool completely before cutting.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fresh Orange Marmalade

I mentioned in my last post that our new home has a lovely bunch of fruit trees in the backyard. In reality, it's practically an orchard! Or at least it seems with just the two of us here. We have 2 avocado trees, 2 orange trees, 2 grapefruit trees, an overachieving lemon tree (think I'm kidding? see below), a nectarine tree, a tangerine tree, a plum tree and an apple tree.
Have you ever seen that many lemons?!

Thus far, I've made many batches of lemonade, as well as a couple of batches of lemon bars and as many lemony dinners as I could come up with (like lemon shrimp, chicken piccata, lemon pepper fish). I am loving having such bounty in our backyard! But I got so focused on using all those lemons, that I didn't notice the explosion of ripe fruit occurring on the back of one of the orange trees. Those bright orange orbs had somehow managed to tuck themselves under the leaves, so it was only when I was doing some pruning that I noticed a bunch ready to go.

In addition to some amazing fresh-squeezed orange juice, I also made a batch of orange marmalade. I used Alton Brown's recipe and was happy with the results:

I used my food processor to make slicing the oranges and lemon a snap. The only thing I might try next time is using less sugar, or maybe adding another lemon. My oranges are pretty sweet on their own, so the marmalade is now REALLY sweet. But I didn't want to mess with it on the first attempt. No worries - there's plenty more oranges for next time!

Got any ideas for using up some of my lemons and oranges? Please share!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Oven vs. Oven vs. Oven (and a chocolate chip cookie recipe)

Sorry I've been quiet so long. But there's a very good reason why. We just moved in to our new house! Yes, we sadly said goodbye to the beach (or not so sadly to those ancient appliances) and gave a warm hello to our new California home!

Since I had a more flexible schedule when we first moved here, I did a lot of the "weeding out" part of the house hunt with our real estate agent while my husband was at work. There were a few "no way!"s, a lot of "nice, but I'm not quite sure it's right for us" and a few "I have to bring Mr. ValleyWriter back!" This house was the first house I said that about. Two of the main reasons - the amazing kitchen and the wonderful fruit trees in the backyard. More on the fruit trees in another post. Today - we'll tackle the kitchen.

After we bought the house and met the neighbors, I learned the wife of the former owners was a home ec teacher and a big cook. I believe this explains the array of ovens at my disposal. Within a 3 door Kitchenaid wall unit, I have a microwave/"Ultima" oven combo and a convection/conventional oven combo - plus a set of warming drawers. I have to admit, other than the microwave and conventional ovens, I have little idea of how to use them or what the various benefits might be. Sure, I could read the manual that the previous owners left us, but what fun is that? Instead, I decided to try out my favorite chocolate chip recipe in all 3 ovens.

My main categories for "evaluation" were bake time, appearance, texture and taste.

First up - bake time. The "Ultima" oven cookies, which get baked on a special crisping pan in the compartment that I usually use for a microwave (this in and of itself seems very odd to me) baked up in a speedy 8 minutes. This is a pre-programmed time set by a code I found on the label inside the oven (there are various food items listed - desserts, meats, casseroles, pizza, etc.). The conventional oven took about 13 minutes and the convection oven 15. So, I guess the benefit of the Ultima oven is cutting your cooking time by almost half - when you need a cookie STAT!

Next - appearance:

As you can see, "one of these things is not like the other." In front on the left, we have the "Ultima" cookies, which spread out a lot thinner than the conventional oven cookies (front right) and convection cookies (back). They also didn't get that dark carmelized color. The other two sets looked similar - nicely browned and just the right thickness.

Texture: The Ultima cookies were soft and a little bready. I think that was because the sugar didn't really get to carmelize. The convection oven cookies were crisper, though they still had pretty soft centers. The conventional oven cookies had the most crunchy, chewy texture (which is what I'm used to getting from this recipe).

Taste: Taste was pretty close (and very yummy) all around. I'd say the Ultima cookies just had little less depth, since they didn't get too much carmelization going on. But the convection and conventional cookies were pretty much identical.

The winner? It's a tie. I'd take convection or conventional. Both had good texture and flavor - and I don't really mind that they took a little extra time to bake. I don't see the Ultima oven getting much use - at least not for baked goods. We'll see what other codes I decide to test out...

So - are you craving chocolate chip cookies yet? As promised, here's my favorite recipe:

The BEST Chocolate Chip Cookies EVER!
(makes 2 dozen)

2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 c. salted butter, melted
1 c. brown sugar (loose, not packed)
1/2 c. white sugar
1 Tbsp. vanilla
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

In a small bowl, combine flour and baking soda. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat melted butter, brown sugar and white sugar until well blended (no lumps). Add vanilla, whole egg and egg yolk and beat until creamy. Beat in flour and baking soda mixture until well blended. Stir in chocolate chips.
Refrigerate dough for 10 minutes to help firm it up.
Meanwhile preheat (conventional) oven to 350 degrees (or set convection oven to 325). Line baking pans with parchment paper.
Drop heaving tablespoons of chilled dough onto parchment paper at least 2" apart.
Bake for 13 minutes (15 in an convection oven) until cookies are evenly browned.