Monday, September 29, 2008


Isn't she cute? Ah, Toaster.

Daring Bakers September: Lavash Crackers!

The Daring Bakers Challenge for August was Lavash (an Armenian flatbread cracker) with a dip or spread of your choosing. The recipe sent out was vegan (except for the yeast... which is kind of vegan... depending on how strict you are. I'm not a vegan but I do have vegan tendencies, so there's no way I'm strict enough to include yeast in my no list! I'd have to give up cheese first and... well... let's just say that I've limited myself to local cheese from pastured cows and the *occasional* imported indulgence, but it goes no further). The recipe also had a gluten-free option. I have to say, I was stoked!!!

This is the first Daring Bakers recipe that will stay in my repetorie. For one, it was not so decadent that I felt that I was trying to slowly and subtly kill the people I fed it to, nor did I feel that bad when I had to eat it myself. Don't get me wrong, the other cakes/eclairs were delicious, but they were not what I usually want (too sweet and too chocolatey, not to mention way too bad for you), and they were extremely time consuming to make. I'd probably just buy eclairs from now on, if I ever wanted one, but I promise the Daring Bakers and the rest of the bakers in the world that I do have more appreciation for the pastries I do eat!

Secondly, I love the versitility of this recipe. It can be made sweet or savory. It can be made with wheat flour or gluten-free. It's vegan (or close enough) but non-vegans will love it too (it is just a cracker, after all). You can put any toping on it you want (I chose sesame seeds (which I had problems getting to stick to the dough) and garlic powder (amazing!), but my favorite I've seen are nori and black sesame seed (beautiful and delicious looking) and cinnamon sugar.

Thirdly, I had a blast making it. It didn't take forever. I used to think that making crackers was silly - that I could just buy them and they are so cheap and easy. However, this was not hard at all, and it was tasty and fresh. I really enjoyed myself! There is some kneading involved (not much) but I liked it. The recipe creates a dough that holds together easily, so it doesn't end up all over your hands or counters. The kneading only takes ten minutes. Put on a song you like and bam! It's practically nothing. It feels good. I felt like my cat, kneading happily along.

Fourth, it really is better to make something at home than to buy it. It just feels... rewarding. And that's why we're here!

I don't want to speak badly of the challenges, though. I have enjoyed them, even in their difficulty! And each time I've learned something important about baking, which I'm definitly not too good at. This time I learned the Windowpane Technique. This is where, once you knead some dough, you pinch off a piece and rub it into a thin disk with your fingers. If it is stretchy and opaque you're done kneading. If it tears easily, knead some more. This is great! It's a nice visual test to see how you've done kneading, and if you are done. Yes, like a lot of baking techniques it's kind of subjective. But it's definitly helpful to know!

Here is the recipe for the crackers (non-gluen-free):

* 1 1/2 cups (6.75 oz) unbleached bread flour or gluten free flour blend (If you use a blend without xanthan gum, add 1 tsp xanthan or guar gum to the recipe)
* 1/2 tsp (.13 oz) salt
* 1/2 tsp (.055 oz) instant yeast
* 1 Tb (.75 oz) agave syrup or sugar
* 1 Tb (.5 oz) vegetable oil
* 1/3 to 1/2 cup + 2 Tb (3 to 4 oz) water, at room temperature
* Poppy seeds, sesame seeds, paprika, cumin seeds, caraway seeds, or kosher salt for toppings

1. In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, salt yeast, agave, oil, and just enough water to bring everything together into a ball. You may not need the full 1/2 cup + 2 Tb of water, but be prepared to use it all if needed.

2. Sprinkle some flour on the counter and transfer the dough to the counter. Knead for about 10 minutes, or until the ingredients are evenly distributed. The dough should pass the windowpane test (see … ong-Enough for a discription of this) and register 77 degrees to 81 degrees Fahrenheit. The dough should be firmer than French bread dough, but not quite as firm as bagel dough (what I call medium-firm dough), satiny to the touch, not tacky, and supple enough to stretch when pulled. Lightly oil a bowl and transfer the dough to the bowl, rolling it around to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

3. Ferment at room temperature for 90 minutes, or until the dough doubles in size. (You can also retard the dough overnight in the refrigerator immediately after kneading or mixing).

4. Mist the counter lightly with spray oil and transfer the dough to the counter. Press the dough into a square with your hand and dust the top of the dough lightly with flour. Roll it out with a rolling pin into a paper thin sheet about 15 inches by 12 inches. You may have to stop from time to time so that the gluten can relax. At these times, lift the dough from the counter and wave it a little, and then lay it back down. Cover it with a towel or plastic wrap while it relaxes. When it is the desired thinness, let the dough relax for 5 minutes. Line a sheet pan with baking parchment. Carefully lift the sheet of dough and lay it on the parchment. If it overlaps the edge of the pan, snip off the excess with scissors.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit with the oven rack on the middle shelf. Mist the top of the dough with water and sprinkle a covering of seeds or spices on the dough (such as alternating rows of poppy seeds, sesame seeds, paprika, cumin seeds, caraway seeds, kosher or pretzel salt, etc.) Be careful with spices and salt - a little goes a long way. If you want to precut the cracker, use a pizza cutter (rolling blade) and cut diamonds or rectangles in the dough. You do not need to separate the pieces, as they will snap apart after baking. If you want to make shards, bake the sheet of dough without cutting it first.

5. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the crackers begin to brown evenly across the top (the time will depend on how thinly and evenly you rolled the dough).

6. When the crackers are baked, remove the pan from the oven and let them cool in the pan for about 10 minutes. You can then snap them apart or snap off shards and serve.


For a topping I just made a mix of tomatoes, onions, avocado, sunflower sprouts, garlic and paper-thin jalepino slices. Kind of a salsa, but not really much of a recipe. Use as much or as little of each as you want. It's most amazing if you use what's in season and ripe in your area, so go at it!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Iron Cupcake Earth: Basil Challenge

This month's Iron Cupcake challenge was to create a sweet cupcake using basil as a key ingredient. I immediately thought of two flavors: Italian and Asian. Italian was out because that might be a little too savory for a cupcake, so I went with Asian flavors. Coconut and basil are used all the time together in some of my favorite dishes! Most of those are savory too, I know, but coconut at least lends itself to sweetness as well as savory. The idea grew from there. The lychee icing sounded suitably complimentary, and I added strawberries for flavor and color. And... I have to say that this Iron Cupcake turned out even better than my last one. I could really taste the basil in this one, because of how it was added as its own element. More on that below!

Coconut Basil Mini Cupcakes with Strawberry Lychee Icing
consisting of cupcake batter, simple syrup and icing

For Simple Syrup:
8 basil leaves
1 c. sugar
1 c. water

Pour water and sugar into a sauce pan. Tear each basil leaf in half and add to the pot. Place pot over medium heat and allow the mix to come to a boil, stirring occasionally. Boil for 3 minutes then remove from heat. Let cool, then remove the basil leaves. You can store the basil syrup for a few days in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

This recipe makes too much basil syrup for this recipe, but you could use it for more cupcakes (they will go fast), or for a nice cocktail of some sort (I don't make that many fancy cocktails but I'm sure there are some out there that this would taste amazing with!).

Cupcake Batter:
1/4 c. plus 2 tablespoons softened Earth Balance Buttery Spread (or butter)
1 1/2 eggs*
3/4 c. plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/4 c. all purpose unbleached flour
1 1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. plus 2 tbsp. coconut milk

Bring Earth Balance and eggs to room temperature. Beat the Earth Balance until soft, then beat in the egg and a half, one at a time. Beat in the sugar until the mixture becomes creamy. Beat in the vanilla Set aside. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt. In alternating batches, starting with the flour mix, beat the flour and the coconut milk into the butter mix until all 3 components are just mixed.

Preheat oven to 375. Line mini cupcake tins with papers. Scoop a little of the mix into each cup. Then, sprinkle some simple syrup onto the top of each cupcake. I used one of those squeeze ketchup bottles you can get for a few cents, and squirted a little syrup onto each. Bake the cupcakes for 10 minutes until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. It was a little hard to tell how done they were from looking, as these cupcakes are very, very white. Once you remove them from the oven, sprinkle a little more basil syrup on top and let cool for 10 minutes in the tins, then remove and cool completely on a wire rack before icing.

Strawberry Lychee Icing
5 strawberries
5 canned lychees, rinsed of their canning syrup and patted dry
1 stick of Earth Balance Buttery Spread or butter, softened but not totally soft
1 1/4 c. powdered sugar

In a food processor or mini prep, blitz the strawberries and lychees so they are a fine puree. Set aside. Beat the Earth Balance, then, in small increments, beat in the powdered sugar. Once it is all together, beat in as much of the fruit puree as you wish. This will make the icing less smooth, so use your discretion as to how rustic you want it to look. If you want, you might add some red food coloring, but I was happy with the nice pink color.

To finish the cupcakes:
Drip a few more sprinkles of basil syrup on top of the cupcakes to seal the top, then ice with the icing.

These cupcakes have a lovely flavor stream, going from the sweetness of the icing to the freshness of the basil, then finishing with the coconut basil flavors.

* I know, I know. But I wanted to make enough to only fill one pan of 24 mini cupcakes, so I had to use about half of a regular recipe, which usually uses 3 eggs. I just whisked the one egg and added half of it to the mix and threw the other half away. If you want to, you could freeze the other half. It might sound silly but I hate to waste even half an egg, and since if use half eggs as often as I do, in halving recipes, it might prove to be useful.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


The weather is beautiful. These flowers were blooming at the park. They stood out in the green and brown like a crazy beacon. Even my pups sniffed them. Granted, they sniff everything, but still.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tea Embassy

Apparently, most things I love about Austin are restaurants! And dog parks. So today... something else. Although, I suppose this is sort of gastronomically related.

I spent a day off about, oh, a month ago going to cool artistic and cultural locations around town, between running errands, which is a good type of day. Accomplishing things, and seeing art. Sweet! I hit two birds with one stone at Tea Embassy, a tiny tea shop in an old house downtown, at 900 Rio Grande.

Tea Embassy carries in the neighborhood of 200 teas, so if you don't like tea that much, chances are you'll still find a tea here that you do like. They have unflavored green, unflavored black, flavored green, flavored black, and herbal. While I was there, the nice girls behind the counter gave me three samples, a black, a raspberry herbal and a green. I ended up buying their most popular green tea, called "Almond Cookie" with ground coconuts and almonds in it. They give you steeping information, so you can make it at home to the best of its flavor, in case you're a tea novice. If you're not a novice, you'll still be amazed, because you can get such a vast amount of tea in one place. I've never seen so much! (They also have tea cups, linens and tea pots, but they were way too traditional and cutesy for my taste. I wish they had more contemporary or ironic/subversive stuff, but I wasn't really looking that hard anyway, to be honest) They do host some informative classes, which sound useful and, if they are hosted by the people I met while I was there, are probably a lot of fun as well!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Chicago, via coffeeshops

I just went on a lovely trip to Chicago for a friend's wedding, and it was absolutely perfect. The first day it rained a lot (rain, they tell me, that was from Gustav, which I find strange, since I don't even think we got rain in Austin from Gustav. I make no claims to understand weather patterns), but the rest of the days were the kinds of clear, cool, comfortable autumn days that really make me miss the Midwest. A few excited trees had already started to change color, and the light came down in a lower angle golden glow that makes everything deepen into a richness you don't get in the bright saturation of summer. Five years in Southwesterly climes and it makes me long more and more to go back to the beauty I grew up with. Well, maybe not entirely back, but Chicago would be close enough!

To combat the dreariness of the first day, Rich and I went to three coffee shops. I had the foresight to photograph only one, so I'll tell you a little about the other two and show you about the third, which, I think, was the best.

For breakfast we went to the Bourgeois Pig, a cozy spot just off the Red Line on Fullerton. It's more of a cafe/coffeeshop, good for a drink and a meal, or just a drink, or, if you're into it, just a meal. Rich had a waffle with a blueberry for each square (I think accidentally but it was amusing nontheless), and I had some amazing granola with soy milk. It had everything but the kitchen sink - oats, honey, various nuts and seeds (including but not limited to sunflower, pumpkin, and almonds), cinnamon, crasins, raisins, and fresh strawberries on top. The coffee was only so-so, but the food was so good, and the atmosphere kind of victorian-British-cozy. There was the additionally amusing scene playing out in the same room as us of a college student and what I can only guess were a professional musician and maybe a professor talking about staging an opera in the spring. It made me long for more highbrow art, the kind of art you only get where the population is teeming with 'serious' universities, which Chicago is. Actually, you may only get that kind of artistic diversity, from students and professionals staging The Magic Flute to stand up comics zinging one-liners, in New York and Chicago. Funny, that's something I associate with a more 'serious' location, too. Somewhere where it gets cold, where people wear dark clothes. It's easy to get comfortable in Austin, the Velvet Rut, and I sometimes worry that I get too complacent.

However! We had dinner that night (rehearsal dinner for the wedding, actually) at Uncommon Ground, which used to be just a coffee shop but, like Bourgois Pig, morphed into a coffeeshop restaurant, but with the added dimension of a bar. It was kind of a strange place, with highbrow service (waiters placing your napkins on your lap for you) in a real coffeeshop environment (comfy chairs, cozy lighting). My food was okay (eggplant ravioli in heirloom tomato water) but they didn't have many vegetarian options. Chicago is kind of like that. There are places, and options, but not nearly as many as Austin. I did have two cocktails that were amazing and helped the world. Yes, I had a drink where every time someone orders one, the restaurant donates $1 to a PAWS, a charity that helps animal shelters, and another drink where every time someone orders one, they plant a tree. Get tipsy for a cause! Brilliant!

The best coffee we had, hands down, was from Intelligentsia. It's a Chicago institution, from what I've read in Food and Wine Magazine (who proclaimed it one of the best coffee spots in America, up there with Stumptown). My friends tell me there are locations all over the city and many shops sell their beans and brew, but for a real experience, I wanted to go to one of their locations. We went to the one downtown off the Jackson stop of the Red Line, just before we went to the Chicago Art Institute. It's a very European feeling shop, spare and clean with not too much food, but a definite emphasis on the coffee.

We split a Chemex for Two (which, although we like coffee we don't drink that much caffine, so it could have been a Chemex for Four for us!). It was my first experience with a Chemex method of brewing coffee, so if you're unfamiliar, I'll describe it. It's this beaker-looking glass contraption that you fit with a filter in the top, and fill with beans and pour hot water over, so it functions sort of like a non-electric brewing machine, but produces coffee comparable to a French Press. I have to say, it wasn't as oily as French Press coffee, but the flavor was clean and clear. We had coffee from Honduras, which was extremely herbal to me. It was very bright and clean, with that definite Latin American acidity. My only cons were that it wasn't as good cold, and the glass Chemex didn't do much to keep it warm, so drink fast. And enjoy!