Meditation, a make-shift solution, and monkey bread

There are very few people over the age of five and under retirement age who don’t own a smartphone. I am one of them, and my husband is too. Nowadays there are increasingly instances when I must out myself that I only own a flip phone, for example when I am told at a store that instead of getting a hole punched in the frequent buyer paper card, I can just log my purchases with the app on my phone. I get funny looks, and often feel compelled to explain why I don’t have a smartphone. Continue reading

A spoonful of sugar no longer

Pesto Flower bakedIt looks like my childhood heroine Mary Poppins needs to reconsider. No more than six teaspoons added sugar per day for women and nine teaspoons per day for men – that’s what the American Heart Association recommends. Until I read this I thought our added sugar intake was on the moderate side. We do not drink any sodas or soft drinks, nor do we add sugar to tea or coffee. I pay attention to the sugar content when I buy cereal and other processed foods. We do not eat candy and a piece of chocolate only once in a blue moon. Most of the baked goods and sweets we eat are homemade, and I reduce the sugar amount in any given recipe by at least one-third. Still, I concluded that we still eat much more sugar than we should. Continue reading

Pesto outlet

Pesto knotsOnce in a while even resolved home cooks like me agree to take-out pizza. With it we usually order a serving of garlic knots sitting in a puddle of very garlicky garlic oil. Seeing the ample, almost untouched amount of pesto in the freezer a few weeks ago made me feel almost guilty about eating garlic knots from somewhere else so I thought of ways to combine the two: pesto knots.

When it comes to pesto, I am a minimalist. I only use homegrown basil and garlic, salt, a good extra-virgin olive oil, and roasted walnuts. No pine nuts because the real, good kind from Lebanon is very expensive, and I find the Chinese pine nuts inedible. And no Pecorino or other cheese because I prefer to add it to the dish right at the table.

Immediately after processing the pesto, I fill it in small disposable paper cups and place them in the freezer until they are solidly frozen. I then remove the cups and tightly pack those pesto lollipops (lollipops without sticks, that is) in a large zippered freezer bag.

The yeasted knots are fun to make, and both times I made them we did not have trouble finishing them within a day or two (they can also be reheated in the oven).

Now that I have averted the danger of having to spread pesto on our breakfast toast in June to use up last year’s supply, I am starting to wonder whether this year my basil plants might get hit by basil downy mildew, a new highly destructive and quickly spreading disease. In gardening, everything is possible. Meanwhile, I will eat another pesto knot and enjoy it.

Pesto Knots

1¼ cups warm water

2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

3½ cups flour (whole wheat or half whole wheat and half bread flour)

½ cup pesto

Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling

1. Mix the water with the yeast and let stand for a few minutes until it starts to foam.

2. In a large bowl mix the olive oil, salt, flour, and the yeast mixture. Knead to a smooth dough using your hands or the dough hook of an electric mixer. The dough should be slightly tacky; add more water a teaspoon at a time as needed.

3. Cover and let rise for 2 hours.

4. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. If you have a baking stone, place it on the medium rack of the oven.

5. Briefly knead dough for remove any air bubbles. Divide it into 24 equally sized pieces using a sharp knife or a dough cutter. Roll each piece into a 6-inch rope of even thickness and twist it into a knot. If the dough starts to feel a bit dry, moisten your hands before shaping each knot.

6. Place the knots directly on the hot baking stone, or on a baking sheet, about 2 inches apart. After placing them in the oven spray them immediately with cold water. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the knots are golden brown.

7. In the meantime mix the pesto with a few tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. Immediately when they come out of the oven, toss the knots with the pesto to coat them evenly.

8. Place the coated knots on a large plate or baking sheet in one single layer. If you pile them up hot as they are they will sweat and get soggy. Eat warm, or reheat in a preheated oven for 350 degrees for a few minutes.

Makes 24 pieces

A big bread for a big storm


Baking bread is always a comforting thing do to, especially in the wake of an upcoming monster storm like the one that will hit the East Coast of the United States tonight.

I just pulled a large loaf of bread from the oven. This is a new variation with pumpkin seeds and pumpkin seed oil, my latest culinary discovery and a specialty from Austria. I was lucky enough to find the real thing at our local supermarket for a decent price.

A small bottle of the intensely flavored dark, nutty oil goes a long way. Pumpkin seed oil is only drizzled onto salads, soups and desserts. I have also added it to a homemade pumpkin frozen yogurt and will post that recipe soon though that will have to wait. Now I better bring in the potted plants and help with the other storm preparations…

Whole-Wheat Pumpkin Seed Bread with Pumpkin Seed Oil

I let the dough rise in a bread rising basket sprinkled with cornmeal. You can also shape it into a large round loaf, or divide the dough in two and bake it in two greased loaf pans.


2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast

1 cup lukewarm beer (leftover beer is fine) or water

1 cup cracked wheat

2 tablespoons honey

1 cup whole-wheat flour


2 cups whole-wheat flour

2 cups bread flour

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons gluten

1¼ cups water

2 tablespoons pumpkin seed oil

¾ cup hulled pumpkin seeds

Cornmeal (optional)

1. Mix the yeast and the beer in a large bowl. Add all the other ingredients and mix well with a spoon. Cover and let rise for 1 hour.

2. Mix the flours, salt and gluten and add to the sponge. Gradually add the water and the pumpkin seed oil. With the kneading attachment of the electric hand mixer, or with the stand mixer with kneading hook set on low, knead until an elastic dough forms. At the end, incorporate the pumpkin seeds until well distributed. If the dough is too dry, add a little warm water; if it’s a little tacky, don’t worry and please don’t add more flour, otherwise the bread will be too dry.

3. Lightly oil a large bowl and place the dough in it. Turn the dough over once so it is evenly coated and cover with a kitchen towel. Let rise in a warm place for 1.5 hours.

4. Sprinkle a rising basket or a baking sheet with cornmeal. Knead the dough briefly but vigorously to remove any air pockets. Shape into a long log and place it in the rising basket.

5. Let rise for 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

6. Flip the bread from the rising basket onto a baking sheet lined with parchment or a baking mat. Place it in the preheated oven and spray the bread with water. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. If the bread makes a hollow sound when you knock on the bottom, it’s ready. Remove from the pan and let cool on a cake rack.

Concord grape solution

Although I have been terribly neglecting my two Concord grape plants (note to myself: read up on grape pruning this winter), they are quite plentiful. Now I am facing the same question as last year – what should I do with them? The truth is, I don’t care much for raw Concord grapes, nor for grape jelly. I planted the grapes for our daughter who has since flown the nest.

My attempt to make fruit leather last year yielded a sticky mess so I had to come up with a new idea. Schiacciata, the stuffed Italian flatbread is made only during grape harvest, sounded good yet it seemed to be rather sweet. I envisioned something more savory. Also, Concords are so juicy that I was afraid they would make the flatbread soggy.

It came out just the way I hoped and I know I will want to eat this again when grape season is over. So now I will freeze the grapes in customized portions. Getting stuck with a bunch of concord grapes isn’t so bad after all.

Stuffed Flatbread with Concord Grapes, Red Onion and Rosemary

I use a round cast-iron pizza pan as a baking stone. Since I don’t have a pizza peel, and I don’t master the art of swiftly transferring a large piece of floppy dough onto the hot stone, I placed it on a large piece of parchment.

When I first made this, I seeded the grapes – a painstaking task. Pushing them through the food mill is much quicker and easier.

 2 teaspoons dry yeast

½ teaspoon sugar

2 cups all-purpose white flour

1 cup white whole-wheat flour

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing

1½ cups Concord grapes

1 large red onion

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

Kosher salt

1. Mix the yeast with the sugar and ¼ cup warm water and stir to dissolve. Set aside for 10 minutes until it foams.

2. Put the flours, 1 cup warm water, the salt, olive oil and yeast mixture in the kitchen machine with a dough hook (if kneading by hand, mix in a bowl, then knead the dough on a clean work surface). Knead at low speed until the dough is smooth and elastic and detaches from the bowl. If too dry, add a bit more water; if too sticky, add more flour by the tablespoon.

3. Take the dough out of the bowl and oil the bowl. Put the dough back in the bowl, turn it once to coat evenly with oil, and cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, or cover it loosely with a lid. Let rise for 1 hour.

4. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Oil a gratin dish. Cut a large piece of parchment paper, slightly larger than the size of your baking stone.

5. Wash the grapes and slip off their skins. Place grapes into a bowl and place a food mill on top. Push the grapes through the food mill and extract as much of the pulp as possible without crushing the seeds.

6. Slice the onion thinly and mix them with grape pulp and skins. Roast in the preheated oven for 30 minutes, turning them a couple of times until they are soft and start to brown at the edges. Remove from the oven and cool. Turn off the oven but leave the oven door closed and place the baking stone on the middle rack of the oven (this will already preheat the stone for later).

7. On a lightly floured work surface roll out the dough about ¼ inch thick and to about double the size of your baking stone. Spread the onion grape mixture over half of the dough. Sprinkle with rosemary and salt. Fold the empty part of the dough over the stuffing, flatten it gently, and pinch all around to seal the edges.

8. Transfer the flatbread onto the prepared parchment paper. Diagonally slash the top every inch or so with a sharp knife. Brush with olive oil and let rise for 30 minutes.

9. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. When the dough is ready to bake, remove the baking stone from the oven. Transfer the parchment paper with the flatbread onto the stone. If you have a lot of excess parchment, carefully cut it off with scissors. Put the baking stone in the middle rack of the oven. Spray the flatbread with cold water and bake for 30 minutes until lightly browned. Remove the baking stone from the oven and slide the flatbread off the stone onto a cake rack to cool.

Bread and butter (definitely bread)

I could live without many foods but not without bread. I could even skip the butter but not the bread. Real bread that is: baked from scratch and not par-baked and frozen. Maybe it is because I spent most of my life in Germany, which boasts endless varieties of wholesome bread, that good bread is so essential for me.

When it comes to bread we live in a sort of no man’s land; there is no place to buy decent bread within at least a 30-mile radius. I wish I could like phoebe’s pure food in neighboring Berks County declare some place the best gluten-free bakery but there is no such bakery around here, let alone a gluten-free one…

For a short time I ordered bread by mail but that was decidedly too costly, and the loaves did not become fresher from traveling cross country for several days. Then I started baking our own.

Baking bread is a bit like gardening. The outcome is unpredictable. Working the soil and working the dough both feel great. Watching the dough rise is like watching plants grow. And, finally, pulling a loaf of bread out of the oven is as utterly satisfying as pulling a bunch of radishes out of the ground.

I have a few basic rules for bread baking. If I am not in the mood, I will not do it. I never start the process when I am rushed and have to be out the door within the next few hours. Working from an office in the house certainly helps a lot, as I can run upstairs to the kitchen to punch down the dough etc. as needed. While I think quality ingredients are important, I am not religious about it – not everything has to be organic. Home-baked bread must be stored in the fridge or frozen because it does not contain any preservatives and molds much quicker than store-bought bread.

Not every loaf is great but the bread is always edible. As good as it gets for an amateur, I am telling myself and try not to fret about air holes and other imperfections. The problem that occurs the most is that the final product is a bit dry. That’s why this chewy no-knead bread baked in a cast-iron Dutch oven is one of my favorite bread recipes: the dough can be really sticky because it is not shaped into a loaf. I often experiment with different combinations of flours and grains. Here is my first attempt with amaranth.

Whole Wheat Amaranth Bread

This makes a large loaf in a 5.5-quart cast-iron Dutch oven. For a small loaf I use a 3.5-quart oval Dutch oven.

1 cup amaranth

1½ tablespoons dry yeast

3 cups lukewarm water

1 tablespoon salt

4 cups bread flour

1½ cups whole-wheat flour

1 tablespoon gluten

You also need:

A large Tupperware container with lid

A cast-iron Dutch oven with a heatproof lid up to 450 degrees F

Parchment paper

Spray bottle

1. Toast the amaranth in a large ungreased skillet over medium to high heat until it starts to pop, stirring and shaking the skillet often. Make sure not to burn it. Set aside to cool.

2. Mix the yeast with ½ cup of the water in a small bowl. Stir well and set aside for 10 minutes until it foams. If it doesn’t, the yeast is not active any more, then you need to discard and try with a new batch.

3. Mix the cooled amaranth and flours with the salt in the container. Add the remaining 2½ cups water and the foamed yeast mix. Mix well with a wooden spoon until the dough is evenly moistened and no flour pockets remain. Tightly place the lid on the container but leave one corner of the lid unattached (if you close the whole container tightly, the lid will pop off). Let rise at room temperature for 2 hours.

4. Line a tall bowl or a container that is the same size as the Dutch oven, or slightly smaller, with a large piece of parchment paper.

5. Knead the dough briefly in the container and dump it into the the parchment-lined bowl. The dough is rather tacky and moist. Do not add any more flour, otherwise the bread will be too dry. Transfer the dough to the bowl and cover loosely with a kitchen towel. It should not touch the dough even after the rise, so I place some taller objects, such as a pot or a cookbook holder, on both sides of the bowl and place the towel on top like a tent. Let rise for 1.5 hours.

6. About 1 hour into the rise, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Adjust the oven rack to the middle of the oven.

7. Once the oven has reached its target temperature, put the empty Dutch oven covered with the lid in the oven and leave it in there for 20 minutes. If it sits in there longer, no problem, the crucial thing is to have it hot when you put the bread in it.

8. Remove the Dutch oven from the oven and place it on a heatproof surface or trivet. Take off the lid and place it out of reach so you don’t risk touching it.

9. Carefully lift the dough with the parchment paper out of the bowl. This is best done by grabbing onto the four corners of the parchment paper. Hold onto as much of the paper edge as you can. Plop it into the Dutch oven. Carefully cut off with scissors any parchment above the rim. Spray the surface of the dough with a bit of cold water. Cover with the lid and place it in the oven.

10. Bake covered for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and back for an additional 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and lift the bread out of the Dutch oven right away. Peel of the parchment and cool completely on a cake rack.

Rolls in the snow

It is not only the snow falling since this morning that makes me feel like in a fairytale. Baking rolls earlier today was also an experience reminding me of Sweet Porridge, a German fairytale by the Brothers Grimm where the pot with porridge does not stop cooking and rises over the edge filling the kitchen, the street and the village… until the girl who knows the magic words makes it stop, and everyone who wants to return has to eat their way back.

I was trying out a recipe for millet bread from The Tassajara Bread Book, a usually very reliable source. The recipe calls for 3 cups whole millet, soaked in hot water. Even though I love rustic wholesome bread I was afraid this was rather bird feed than human fare. So I decided to give the millet a quick boil. I have cooked millet before but never that much at once. The millet swelled and swelled and I ended up with 10 cups. There was no way I could work this amount into the dough for what was supposed to be two loaves of bread so I used 4 cups and froze the rest for some other time.

The recipe makes two dozens rolls. Unlike the porridge in the fairytale, it won’t be hard to finish those off!

Whole Wheat Rolls with Millet

1¼ cup whole uncooked millet

2 scant tablespoons active dry yeast

3 cups lukewarm water

¼ cup honey

1 cup non-fat dry milk

2 cups bread flour

5 cups whole wheat flour

1 tablespoon salt

¼ cup canola oil

2 tablespoons + 1½ teaspoons gluten

Cornmeal for the baking sheet

1. Bring the millet and 3 cups water to a boil in a saucepan. Let simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until the water is absorbed. Fluff the millet with a fork and set aside to cool.

2. Dissolve the yeast in 3 cups lukewarm water. Add the honey and the dry milk and stir to dissolve.

3. Add 2 cups bread flour and 3 cups whole wheat flour add mix with the dough attachment of the kitchen machine until well combined.

4. Let rest in a warm place (I do this in the switched off, cool oven and place a jelly roll underneath to catch any spills) for 45 minutes.

5. Add the remaining whole wheat flour, salt, oil and gluten. Knead with the machine to a smooth dough.

6. Drain the millet if there is water left in the pot. Work the millet to the dough. With floured hands, assemble the dough to form a ball and transfer the dough to a large oiled bowl. I It is OK if the dough it slightly sticky.

7. Turn the dough over once to coat. Let rise in a warm place for 50 minutes.

8. Punch the dough down with both fists and turn it over. Let rise for 40 minutes.

9. Knead the dough on a floured surface for 3 to 4 minutes. Divide in half and shape each half into a long, baguette-like loaf. Cut each loaf into 12 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a ball. Sprinkle two baking sheets with cornmeal, or line them with a pastry mat.

10. Place the unbaked rolls at generous distance on the baking sheet. Cover with a damp clean kitchen towel and let rise 20 minutes.

11. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Place a jelly roll on the lower oven rack.

12. Place the baking sheet with the rolls in the preheated oven and immediately pour 2 to 3 cups cold water on the jelly roll. Close the oven door at once to keep the steam in the oven. Bake the rolls for 25 minutes, until lightly browned on top.

13. Remove rolls from the baking sheet and cool on a wire rack. Bake the second batch the same way.

Makes 24 rolls

Savory bread

Once my daughter brought a friend home for the weekend, who saw me baking bread. A few days later her friend sent us a lovely thank-you note with a watercolor view from our kitchen window and her grandfather’s recipe for oatmeal herb bread (typed on an antique manual typewriter). Almost every time when I try out a new bread recipe and ask my husband whether he likes it, he says, “It was good,” or “It was great,” only to add, “but I still like Claire’s bread the best.”

Claire’s bread is the reason why I started to grow summer savory, an herb I rarely use in cooking. I grow savory from seed until it’s strong and bushy and about to bloom, then I cut it down all at once and dry it. By late winter, the savory supply is gone, so my husband has to wait until mid-summer for more of his favorite bread. Even my son, until now a member of the Wonder Bread lobby, said it was good.

I made a few changes to the original recipe, including honey instead of molasses, whose flavor I don’t like; whole-wheat flour plus gluten for a lighter texture; more savory and no dried parsley. Like all bread, it should cool completely before cutting. This is not easy to enforce if you have a bread lover lurking in the kitchen, just waiting for you to turn your back.

Whole-Wheat Herb Bread

2 scant tablespoons active dry yeast

1/3 cup lukewarm water

2 tablespoons soft butter

½ cup dark honey

3 cups whole-wheat flour (preferably King Arthur white whole wheat flour)

3 cups bread flour

2½ teaspoons salt

4½ teaspoons gluten

2 cups hot water

1 cup rolled oats

1 teaspoon finely crumbed dried crumbled basil

½ teaspoon anise seed

2½ teaspoons powdered summer savory

½ teaspoon finely crumbled dried thyme

1 egg

1. Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water and let stand 10 minutes until foamy.

2. In the meantime mix the butter with the honey in a small bowl. Mix the flours with the salt and gluten in a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer. Add the hot water and mix briefly.

3. Add the yeast mixture and the butter-honey. With the kneading attachment of the electric hand mixer, or with the stand mixer with kneading hook set on low, knead until a smooth dough forms. If the dough is too dry, add a little warm water; if it’s a little tacky, don’t worry and please don’t add more flour, otherwise the bread will be too dry.

4. Lightly oil a large bowl and place the dough in it. Turn the dough over once so it is evenly coated and cover with a kitchen towel. Let rise in a warm place for 1 hour.

5. Reserve 2-3 tablespoons of the oats and work the rest into the dough together with the dried herbs until well incorporated.

6. On a floured surface divide the dough into two equal pieces. Place them in greased loaf pans and cover with a kitchen towel. Let rise in a warm, non-drafty place for 45 minutes.

7. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

8. Mix the egg with 2 tablespoons cold water and brush onto the tops. Sprinkle with the reserved oats.

9. Place a jelly roll pan the lower rack of the oven. Fill it two-thirds with boiling water from a water kettle.

10. Bake 40 to 50 minutes until browned on top. If the bread makes a hollow sound when you knock on the bottom, it’s ready. Remove from the pan and let cool on a cake rack.

Makes two loaves