Tag Archives: bread

In love with stecca

steccaMY FRIEND NANCY knew that I often baked bread using Jim Lahey’s no-knead approach, using the Dutch oven to make a crusty round or oval loaf.  She’d tried a lot of Lahey’s recipes, and one favorite was the stecca (“stick” in Italian), a small and thin baguette-like loaf that incorporates olive oil as well as the usual flour-water-salt and yeast combo and is baked on a baking sheet rather than a Dutch oven.  Nancy’s partner, Duane, is Steve’s brother, and he would gladly eat stecca every day. After Steve and I tried it at their home in California, we fell in love with it too, so Nancy copied the recipe for me.

When I got home, I made it once or twice. It was a little messy — as Nancy had warned me, the tea towel was permanently marred by impossible-to-remove oil stains–but very, very good. Still, maybe because it was a bread that should be eaten in a day or two rather than a loaf to last for days (sometimes almost a week), I forgot about it and didn’t make it again for a year or two.

That all changed recently. I came across the recipe and thought I’d try it again. It was so easy — as long as I started it the night before we wanted to eat it — and made a wonderful accompaniment to soup or salad. It was delectable on its own with a bit of butter or some cheese. I made it again and again, playing around with variations, substituting a bit of whole wheat flour, sometimes adding seeds to the top.

Now I’m making it often, but only half a recipe at a time. Not that we couldn’t eat four stecca loaves in two days (it would be very easy to eat a stecca loaf by oneself in one sitting, especially if it’s still warm from the oven) — but it’s probably better if we don’t.

Isn’t it amazing what just 1/4 of a teaspoon (or 1/8 in the half recipe) will do, given a bit of time? Maybe there’s a moral there: Give it time.

sesame stecca


I tweaked Jim Lahey’s recipe just a little. This is the recipe for four little sticks of bread.

  • 2 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon yeast (instant or regular)
  • 1 1/2 cups cool water
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt; (sesame or other seeds optional)
  • cornmeal and additional flour for dusting
  1. In a medium bowl, stir together both flours, table salt, sugar and yeast. Add the water, and using a wooden spoon or your hand, mix until it comes together as a wet, sticky dough. Cover the bowl and let it sit at room temperature until it is dotted with bubbles and the dough is more than doubled, 12 to 18 hours (a few more won’t hurt).
  2. When the first rise is complete, generously dust a work surface with flour. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the dough out of the bowl. Fold the dough over itself two or three times and gently shape it into a somewhat flattened ball. (If it is too sticky, you may need to first add a little more flour, but it should still be quite a moist dough).
  3. Place a tea towel on the work surface and generously dust it with cornmeal. Place the dough on the towel, seam side down, and brush the top with some of the olive oil. Sprinkle top with 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt and a light dusting of cornmeal. Fold the ends of the tea towel loosely over the dough to cover it and place in a warm draft-free spot to rise for 1 to 2 hours. The dough is ready when it is almost doubled, and when you gently poke it with your finger it holds the impression.
  4. Half an hour before the end of the second rise (approximately) preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. with a rack in the center. Lahey says to oil your 13-by-18 baking pan, but sometimes I don’t oil, and it’s been fine.
  5. Cut the dough into quarters. Gently stretch each piece more or less evenly (mine is always a little uneven, but it’s part of the charm) approximately the length of the pan. Brush with olive oil (you may not need the entire 1/4 cup) and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt. Sprinkle with sesame, poppy or other seeds if you like.
  6. Bake for 14 to 20 minutes (I find it’s done at 14 or 15 minutes), until the crust is golden brown. Cool on the pan for five minutes, then transfer the stecca to a rack to cool (or not, if you must have some now).

NOTE: The crust of the stecca is thinner than a baguette, and the combination of the oil and salt may make it soggy in just a few hours. You can reheat the loaves in a 350 degree oven for a few minutes until the crust crisp but watch carefully — the stecca is so thin that it may turn into a cracker very quickly!

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Breads of summer

wholewhbreadIF YOU’RE SWELTERING IN THE SUMMER HEAT,  you probably won’t relate, but here in the Northwest, we still have plenty of cool-ish, windy days and rain. I think it’s perfect weather for bread baking, which is an activity I thoroughly enjoy. And isn’t summer made for pleasurable activities?


Cloud watching is another of my favorite pastimes these days. Any time of the year.

Lately, inspired by my son Zak’s incredible breads, I’ve been experimenting with a hybrid (hy-bread?) method of bread making, combining the Jim Lahey no-knead method, with, yes, a little bit of kneading and shaping  using sourdough starter (1/3 cup approximately for one loaf) along with a tiny bit (1/4 teaspoon or less) of yeast. I’ve also been increasing the proportion of whole wheat/ whole grains, with varying success. This loaf I baked yesterday, about 50 percent whole wheat, rated a photo and is being enjoyed in sandwiches today and toast tomorrow.


Actually, as I write this, it isn’t quite officially summer yet. Maybe soon my cooking plans will turn to potato salads or berry jams. But it’s very likely that there will also be more good bread-baking days ahead here in the Northwest corner. . .

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Pleasures of baking

oatmealbreadSome days it’s seems as if we’re living in a bread-phobic culture, but regardless — I love to bake. Bread, challah, pizza, cinnamon rolls, scones and biscuits, are all regular visitors to my kitchen.

In the week before Passover, I’m appreciating them even more as I contemplate the eight days of doing without both the eating and the baking of bread (though I may try baking my own matzo this year).

Ah, the baking. The magic of creating something that can grow and transform, the thrifty satisfaction of turning such basic ingredients into appealing and sustaining foods, the fragrance in the kitchen. . . .

Yes, it takes time, but most of that is not active hands-on time (though the hands-on part is fun), and, besides, it’s a good way to slow down and be productive at the same time.

I’ve heard it said that many people are afraid of yeast (yeast-phobia?) and that’s a shame. It is really not so scary! If you are new to bread baking, you do not, repeat NOT, need a bread machine. What’s the worst that can happen? Your bread doesn’t turn out? You haven’t wasted a lot of money or time, and some birds in the neighborhood might be grateful for your efforts. Anyway, we learn by mistakes — don’t we?

I’ve been making bread doughs with yeast or sourdough starter (whether knead or no-knead) for a long time, so I’m pretty confident that I know how the dough should feel, and I rarely look at a recipe.

I know if I start with a cup of water, for example, how much I will need of yeast or starter, flour and salt, and what approximate ratio of whole grains I should use (Yes, I’ve had a few brick-like breads, when I overloaded the dough with whole grains, but the bread was still edible. More or less.)

Or if it is a dough for challah or sweet rolls, I may add an egg and a little oil and honey to the dough, depending on what’s on hand.

mini challah

I often make miniature challah (rolls, really) and put a few in the freezer

cinnamon rolls

I shaped part of the challah dough into cinnamon rolls and let them rise slowly in the fridge overnight. Next day, I popped them in the oven, for Sunday morning freshly baked rolls!

Of course, if you haven’t baked much before, recipes are useful guidelines. Professional bakers weigh their ingredients for consistency, but for the home baker, that’s not necessary.

When it comes to quick breads (scones, biscuits, muffins, etc.) I do look at measurements a bit more carefully, though there is still room to play around.

bigbiscuits Last week I followed my tried-and-true biscuit recipe (which you can see here) with my new, and bigger, biscuit cutter. This informative New York Times article on tender biscuits and scones offered some tips, and I wanted to see whether cutting my biscuits with a sharper cutter would make them better. I also learned that placing biscuits close together would make them rise up rather than spread. Makes sense.

biscuitsonplateThe biscuits were delicious. But were they actually better than the smaller ones? Not really. Either way, these are great and go with nearly everything.

biscuitsandfreshjamP.S. I know it looks as if we consume an unconscionable amount of baked goods. So let me just say that these photos were taken over the last month or more. Really.



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hors d’oeuvres — for dinner

appetizerdinnerWhen the weather turns warm, as it has here recently, there are times when you just don’t want to think about making dinner — especially if you have a nice place to sit outside and sip on a drink.

Our new apartment has a wonderful balcony with a view, and there’s been a number of evenings when I’d rather watch the sunset than spend much time in the kitchen.  On those days,  I just try to scrounge up enough little dishes to make a dinner of h’ors d’ouevres — or should we call them mezze, appetizers or noshes?

appetizerdinner2Bread or crackers are essential, in my book, and they invite toppings, spreads and dips. Of course, appetizers go well with a glass of wine or a gin and tonic or a sparkly drink — my current nonalcoholic favorite is grapefruit juice and sparkling water.

Do you feel the need for something more substantial? A grain salad like my Triple Lemon Bulgur Salad will go very well with the lighter noshes, and be nutritious as well. Just make it earlier in the day or even the day before.

Who needs dinner?

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Start with the bread


My son (who’s an incredible home baker) gave me some sourdough starter a couple months ago and told me I should give sourdough another try. I had failed to maintain a sourdough a couple years ago, and had given up on it — but this was a gift from Zak, so how could I refuse?

Well, Zak’s starter is so lively and tolerant that it has me hooked. It survived the long car trip from California and a few weeks of neglect when I was too busy to bake bread. As long as it’s fed (water and flour) from time to time, it’s in bubbly good spirits. And that wonderful starter has been inspiring me to make bread quite a bit lately — which has warmed up our apartment nicely during this cold spring.


I’ve mostly been using the Dutch oven method, in which the combination of a wet dough and a very hot oven-like pan makes for a crusty European-style bread. My current favorite is a hearty bread similar to the one I discussed in this post (which was also in praise of German bread) but using 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sourdough starter in place of the yeast, and adjusting a bit for the additional liquid of the starter. I bake it (in a Dutch oven preheated in a 450-degree oven) for 25 minutes with the lid on, and 15 minutes with the lid off.


The dough I’ve been using has approximately 1 cup bread flour, 1 cup whole wheat flour, 1/2 cup rye and 1/2 cup oatmeal, some sunflower, flax, sesame and poppy seeds and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt — plus scant half cup of starter and about 1 1/2 cups of water. I say approximately, because I’ve found this recipe (like the starter) is quite forgiving of my slapdash methods.


Once I have a nice loaf of bread, a lot of problems are resolved around the house. Hungry? Have a slice of bread or toast. It’s always a good place to start.


If you’re lucky, there might be an avocado or something else good to put on it!

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Picnics (and more) on the road

Picnic in Wilbur, Washington

We recently returned from yet another great road trip to Montana. We’re not big meat eaters, so dining out is always a challenge in the interior West. As an alternative (and an economical one too), we ate a lot of picnics on the road.

A windy picnic along Highway 12, between Miles City and Baker, Montana

Here’s what we were eating (along with some dust):

The multi-grain bread, from a bakery in Miles City, Montana, was terrific

Our picnics were pretty basic: bread and cheese, sometimes some green onions, cucumber or carrots, and fresh fruit. But they were good and relatively healthy. The challenge was to find good bread and fruit. In light of that, I came up with a couple of rules for the road:

1. Never pass up a good bakery (you may need to search for one)

Le Petit Outre bakery, Missoula, Montana

Focaccia from Missoula made a great accompaniment to salad in our motel room in Davenport, Wash. on the return trip.

2. Never pass up a fruit stand or farmers’ market.

A great fruit stand in orchard country, Orondo, Washington

Missoula has a wonderful farmers' market on Saturdays. My friend Kathy also recommends the Livingston farmers' market on Wednesday afternoons.

I did a lot less cooking than last year’s motel cooking extravaganza, but I still brought along the important supplies: electric tea kettle, cutting board, knife, can opener, lemon reamer, bulgur, olive oil and salt, which resulted in some nice salad dressings (my basic lemon, olive oil and salt dressing is good on nearly everything) and a couple of bulgur-vegetable salads.

Bulgur salad with plenty of vegetables (along with bread from Anjou Bakery in Cashmere, Wash.) was a good change from the bread & cheese combo.

Our picnics often took place outside a motel room.

Beer before dinner at the Stardust Motel in Wallace, Idaho

I put together this meal of bulgur salad and tuna in the "rustic" Highlander Motel in White Sulfur Springs (W.S.S.), Montana.

We tried eating outside the motel room, until the mosquitoes emerged.

As for eating out, a couple times we indulged in a milk shake as a meal replacement.

Chocolate-espresso shake at Butterfly Herb, Missoula

Steve particularly likes going out to breakfast, but after some disappointing breakfasts at promising-looking cafes, I came up with a guideline for telling when a place might be most likely to fulfill that promise: If a cafe offers hash browns or home fries made from scratch, rather than slabs of processed frozen spuds, there’s a better chance of a good breakfast.

(Apparently the phrase “home cooking” these days includes a lot of processed foods, so it’s not a good indicator.)

The Dizzy Diner in Terry, Montana, used frozen hash browns, but Steve liked his breakfast anyway. I only had a cup of coffee here.

The Corner Cafe in Creston, Washington, makes their hash browns from scratch. I complimented the cook.

In regard to breakfast, another aspect that helped me out was bringing along a good stash of homemade granola.

On the way home, we stopped again at that fruit stand in Orondo, Wash.

We bought cherries and apricots. And honey.

Breakfast at home the next day was mighty good too!


p.s. Some places it’s easier to find good picnic food — I really like this post about picnics in Europe.


Filed under bread and pizza, breakfast, fruit, musings, summer, Uncategorized

The great bread debate

Altamura bread is famous in all of Italy. It’s made from semolina, giving it its characteristic golden color, and is baked in wood-fired ovens. People say the crusty tender bread will stay fresh for days, even a week or more.

Altamura is a city in Puglia, in the south of Italy, and on our recent trip to Southern Italy, I was determined to go there and taste that bread. But first, Steve and I went to Matera, a town in the region of Basilicata, only a little more than 10 miles away from Altamura.

Matera is known for its fascinating ancient city built from rock and the natural caves where people have lived from Neolithic times.

But we also found a lot of residents who said the city should be as well known as Altamura for its bread! In fact, said the man at the tourist office, the bread of Matera was better than Altamura — more home-made and less industrial, he said.

Well, clearly I was going to have to do a bread comparison!

The Panificio Fratelli de Paolo, above, was a good example of a classic Matera bakery, the tourist office man said. As other customers streamed in for their pane and panini, we gazed at all the kinds and shapes of bread and rolls–and all the tempting varieties of focaccia.

We got a piece of tomato-olive focaccia for the train ride to Altamura, and a half-kilo loaf (full size loaves are one kilo) in the traditional crowned shape known as the “priest’s hat.”

This is just half the size of the normal loaf in Matera or Altamura

While waiting for the train to Altamura, I struck up a conversation with a woman at the station. She and her husband were returning home to Altamura. I told her we were going there for the bread.

Was it really different from Matera bread? I asked.  Si, si, it was far superior, she insisted vigorously.  I was glad I’d tucked the big loaf of Matera bread into my backpack, so she couldn’t see it.

From the train, we saw the landscape historically known for wheat growing: the Matera hills and the “Murgia,” the limestone plateau of Puglia.  Different kinds of durum wheat from this region are blended for this area’s special bread. Semolina, the coarsely ground prime endosperm of durum wheat, is more granular than flour, high in protein and golden in color.

When we reached Altamura, the nice lady and her (somewhat reluctant) husband guided us (walking– buses weren’t running) to the old city center, about a mile away. Eventually, after a couple false leads, we found Antico Forno di S. Chiara, which had a wood-fired oven from the 1400s.

Though we were a little too late to see the breads coming out of the oven, the workers were keeping the fire going. I bought another 1/2 kilo loaf of bread, which looked just the same as the Matera bread. It cost the same too: 1 Euro.

We also bought another big piece of focaccia to eat right then (the bread would have to wait) and walked back along the street of the old city, stopping to admire the wonderful stone carvings of Altamura’s 12th century cathedral.

Walking back to the train station, I stopped at a fruit stand to buy some fresh strawberries and mandarins to balance out all this bread. Then we spotted a street that our Altamura guide had pointed out to us on the way to the historic center. On via Pimental, she’d said, there was another fine wood-fired oven bakery. Well, we couldn’t pass it up! After all, how often did we get to Altamura?

Once again, at Panificio DiGesu’, there were loads of great looking breads– including the priest’s hat shapes– and biscotti and focaccia. We could see the huge stainless steel ovens behind the counter, so we figured this was a good example of the mass produced Altamura bread.

Well, naturally, we bought another 1/2 kilo loaf. Again, 1 Euro. The man in this photo asked us where we were from, and when we said we were from the U.S., he said, “Wonderful,” and cut us two big pieces of focaccia to sample, one dough made with oil and one without.

We gobbled them up as we walked back to the train with our three loaves of bread, and I have to say, that was the best focaccia I ever ate! This was the focaccia that defeated McDonald’s in Altamura. Seriously, you can read about it here. We should have bought some of it too, but by then we were getting so overloaded on carbohydrates, we just couldn’t do it.

Back in Matera, we went to a salumeria to buy some roasted marinated peppers and small onions (they were the most incredible tasting marinated onions) to have with the bread for our supper.

The results of this survey? The bread from the industrial-size bakery, DiGesu’, was the sliced loaf and it didn’t have that blackened aspect of the crust. But it couldn’t be said that it suffered in any way from being baked in a newer, larger wood-fired oven.

So which bread was the best? Really, I cannot say. The three breads were remarkably similar–and all were magnificent. The great bread debate will not be resolved by me.

I also can’t vouch for how long they would keep fresh. We couldn’t eat all the bread by the time we had to leave Matera–this being carb-overload even for me–so we left some behind for the birds. A shame, I know! I wish I had some now…..

P.S. Watch the kneading of Matera bread on this Youtube video and the baking of bread in Altamura here. Amazing. And let me know if you’ve tried baking or eating semolina bread.


Filed under baked goods, bread and pizza, Praise for other cooks, Uncategorized

Keepin’ warm and eatin’ right!

Print by Aviva Steigmeyer

I keep this print of Aviva’s on the kitchen cupboard, and I find myself looking at it a lot these days, especially around the holidays–which always seem to require copious amounts of fat and sugar– when I feel the need for an antidote to all the rich food.

Whether you’re preparing for these holidays or recovering from them (or even  avoiding them completely) it’s always good to have some simple and tasty food around. And it doesn’t hurt if it’s nutritious too. Despite the feeling after Thanksgiving dinner that you will never want to eat again, it’s pretty likely that you will….

So I’m back to that classic, can’t-be-beat winter meal: soup and bread.

In the week before Thanksgiving, I decided to make a big pot of soup to last all week long.  Something with white beans and green vegetables sounded good to me, and at the Food Coop, I was inspired by a nice bunch of kale.

Lacinato kale is also called black kale or Tuscan kale or dinosaur kale

I soaked some navy beans, sauteed onions (that essential step) and kept on cooking till I had a big pot of soup. Carrots gave it a little sweetness and the kale gave it that green nutritiousness.

White Bean soup with Kale

1 lb. white beans–Great Northern, cannellini or navy beans
2 onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 to 4 cups of broth (vegetable or chicken—if you don’t have homemade, canned is fine. I like Swanson’s low sodium chicken broth)
6 to 8 cups of water
Seasonings: salt and pepper, bay leaf, chopped fresh rosemary or other herbs to taste, a rind of hard cheese such as Parmigiano.
4 to 6 carrots, halved lengthwise and chopped into ½ inch pieces
1 big bunch of kale (preferably lacinato), stems discarded, leaves coarsely chopped

  • The night before, soak the beans in plenty of water.  (If you want the soup the same day, you can cover the beans with water, bring them to a boil, then remove from heat and let them sit, uncovered, for an hour. Then, proceed.) Drain and rinse.
  • Let the olive oil heat up, then sauté your onions over medium heat until they are soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute.
    (It helps if you can fry the onions and garlic right in the pot you’ll be using for the soup, but if you don’t have the right kind of pot for sautéeing, you can transfer this mixture to the soup pot.)
  • Now add the beans, plus about 10 cups of liquid, a combination of broth and water.  You can use half broth, half water or less broth if you like (I used about 3 cups broth to 7 of water).
  • Add seasonings: A teaspoon or two of salt (bland soup may be under-salted; you don’t need to even approach the sodium levels of canned soup, but salt brings out flavors),  black pepper, a bay leaf, and a teaspoon or two of finely chopped fresh herbs if you have them – I used sage and rosemary. Also—if you have that cheese rind, toss it in too. It flavors the soup beautifully.
  • Bring the soup to a simmer and let it simmer, uncovered, until the beans are just tender, about 50 minutes.

While I was at it, I decided to start a bread that would bake the next day, meaning it would be ready to eat about 24  hours  after I started it. There are loads of good breads you can make that would be done sooner– and for that matter,  lots of great bakeries that will sell you a nice loaf of crusty bread–but it’s kind of satisfying to make crusty European-style bread in your own oven.

I won’t attempt to give the recipe here, but will direct you to Mark Bittman’s New York Times’ article and recipe adapted from Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery. Since it was published three years ago, it’s  become a home-bakers’ sensation. It’s a good weekend project — sometime when you’re not in a hurry.  But if you’re worn out from too much holiday cooking, perhaps it’s best to save this project for another day…..

This loaf took about 24 hours start to finish

As I’m writing this post, it’s two days after Thanksgiving, and I’m making more soup and another loaf of bread.

Oatmeal bread took a mere six hours before it was ready to eat

Back in the day when I had Thanksgiving at my house, there was not only leftover turkey for sandwiches in the days following, but also a hulking turkey carcass which had to be dealt with–which meant that every post-Thanksgiving Friday, I’d be making turkey-barley soup. And I usually made a batch of oatmeal-wheat bread, which was great for sandwiches and soup accompaniment.

Marc carved up the Thanksgiving turkey a couple days ago. The leftovers have probably become soup by now.

This Thanksgiving, I admit, I am thankful I don’t have to deal with a turkey carcass (nasty word).  I don’t even really miss the turkey sandwiches so much. Maybe I’m sliding slowly to semi-vegetarianism — or, as some folks call it these days (a bit absurdly),  flexitarianism.

So, there would be no turkey barley soup. But I did still want something with barley. So today I made mushroom barley soup.

Here’s about all you need to know for any barley soup:  Buy some pearl barley, either in bulk at a co-op or in a bag which you’ll find near the dry beans in your grocery store. Simmer 1/2 cup pearl barley in two cups of water (double the amounts for a giant pot of soup), covered, for about 20 or 30 minutes, until tender. You’ll be adding the cooked barley to your soup.

If you’re making turkey soup, you could saute some onions for 5 minutes or so, and then add garlic, chopped celery, carrots and saute them too. Now, take your turkey stock (after you’ve picked out the bones and much of the meat for another purpose), and add the cooked barley and the sauteed vegetables. After you simmer your ingredients together for an hour or two, add some chopped greens (kale again, or chard or spinach or beet greens) or green beans or other vegetables (including frozen ones) and simmer just till those are done.

For mushroom barley soup, I adapted a recipe I’ve been using for a long long time, from Moosewood Cookbook. It’s a handwritten and illustrated collection of recipes by Mollie Katzen when she was a member of the Moosewood collective which started a vegetarian restaurant in upstate New York in 1973.

The original Moosewood Cookbook, published in 1977, was–like The Vegetarian Epicure–a great inspiration to vegetarian cooks who wanted something other than brown rice and stir fried veggies.

My copy of the original Moosewood Cookbook fell apart with use, so I had to use this image from Wikipedia.

The original recipes were pretty heavy on butter and eggs. The book also had a maddening index, which required you to look up recipes by the ingredients. This meant you had to wade through about 30 recipes with mushrooms before finding mushroom barley soup. And it was even worse  with common ingredients such as potatoes or rice.

The classic vegetarian cookbook was revised in 1997

Fortunately, the revised 1997 edition has a normal index. And Mollie Katzen revised the recipes to make them lighter and healthier (but still very good).

Yes, it’s easy to make this recipe (or the white bean/kale one) vegetarian or even vegan. Simply ignore suggestions for butter, chicken stock or cheese.

It will still be delicious, and you could invite a vegan friend over for a bowl of soup.

Mushroom barley soup

  • Just saute a nice big chopped onion for 5 minutes or so in a tablespoon or two of olive oil or butter. Add a couple cloves of minced garlic and about a pound of sliced or chopped mushrooms and keep stirring until it’s all tender and fragrant, about 10 minutes.
  • Next, toss in 1/4 cup or so of sherry if you have. I had some leftover cheap port that I’d used in making cranberry-port chutney, so that’s what I used,  but if you don’t have anything like that, don’t worry. It’s not worth going out to buy a bottle.
  • Now add the cooked barley with its cooking water, some salt and pepper, herbs (rosemary or sage is nice) and 4 or 5 cups of water or veggie or chicken stock, or a combination. ( Moosewood says to put in 3 or 4 tablespoons of soy sauce too, but I usually don’t.) You could add a bay leaf too, if you have one.
  • Let all this simmer, partially covered, for 30 or 40 minutes, and adjust the seasonings. If you like, you could serve with some chopped parsley or grated Parmeggiano or Romano or pecorino cheese.

Now you have a lovely soup to eat, and it will keep you warm and eatin’ right.

P.S. If you are tired of being in the kitchen, or simply need to take a break, sit back and enjoy reading Maira Kalman’s latest wise and wonderful blog entry about food, “Back to the Land.”

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Filed under bread and pizza, fall, soup, Uncategorized, vegetables, winter

A circle, a braid, a meditation on challah….

Making challah is good for the soul — as long as it is done in the right spirit.  That is to say, without rush or anxiety.

Challah is the traditional bread of the Jewish Sabbath, but you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy making challah. (That reminds me of a famous ad from the 60s, I think, that read, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Rye Bread.”)

First off, that “ch” in the beginning of the word is pronounced like a throaty kind of “h,”and definitely not like the ch in “chore.”

Take your time, and a sense of peacefulness and calm may infuse the whole process of bread making, shaping, and baking. Allow  time for the yeast to do its magic, and enjoy the sensory pleasures of kneading, rolling and braiding the dough, the visual transformation of egg yolk to a golden burnish, the delicious aroma of bread baking in the oven.

When I’m feeling a bit down, baking challah can be a restorative act. It’s kind of a bread meditation, with the finished loaf as an added bonus.


My mother's family, from Russia, always put a small braid on top of the main one.

While any bread baking can be meditative, there’s something very heartening and symbolic about the braiding of bread.  And when you break off a warm piece of challah (one segment of the braid) to eat, you’ll understand why it’s part of the Sabbath ritual. And why there’s a special prayer of thanks for bread.

I couldn't resist adding a little braid around the top

I couldn't resist adding a little braid around the top of this round challah

For Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which we are just celebrating (it’s 5770, by the way) I made a round challah, with raisins in it. That’s also traditional as the spiral-round shape is supposed to signify either a crown (as in crown of the year) or a completed circle of the year.

Raisins are for added sweetness, and you are also supposed to eat apples and honey for a sweet year. I made my Rosh Hashanah challah with honey for a delicious flavor. Some people put apples in the challah, which sounds good.

A couple years ago, I tasted a Rosh Hashanah challah that was filled with chocolate! A bit over the top, perhaps, but New Year’s comes around only once a year — or is that twice?

There’s something very pleasing about making these circles and braids. I learned to make challah from my mother and she learned to knead dough and bake bread from her mama (who also made awesome cinnamon rolls).  As far as a formal recipe, with measurements and all, my mother turned to  her trusty Jewish cookbook.

My mother's 1958 copy of "The Jewish Cook Book" by Mildred Grosberg Bellin, got quite a workout

My mother's 1958 copy of "The Jewish Cook Book" by Mildred Grosberg Bellin, got quite a workout

Here’s the almost-original recipe, with a few adjustments by me. It doesn’t use as many eggs as some recipes… and of course, there is NO butter! I usually like to sprinkle poppy seeds on top.


  • 1 Tablespoon yeast
  • 1 Tablespoon sugar
  • 2 cups warm water
  • 3 large eggs
  • ¼ to ½ cup sugar or honey
  • ¼ cup oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 8 to 9 cups flour (white or combination of white and whole wheat)
  • optional: poppy or sesame seeds
  1. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in ½ cup warm water and let rise for 15 minutes
  2. Combine two of the eggs, oil, honey, salt, and the rest of the water in a large bowl and add the yeast mixture.
  3. Stir in enough flour to form a soft dough; then turn out on a floured board and continue to work in flour until the dough is no longer sticky.
  4. Knead, adding flour as needed, until the dough is smooth and satiny, about 8 to 10 minutes.
  5. Put the dough in a large oiled bowl, and cover with a towel or plastic wrap. The bowl should have plenty of room so the dough can double in size.
  6. Let the dough rise until double (two to three hours) at room temperature or put the dough in the refrigerator to rise overnight. If you do the latter, take it out in the morning and give it another hour or two to let it rise more before the next step.
  7. Punch the dough down, and divide into two for two large loaves.
  8. For each loaf, divide the dough into four pieces. Roll three of the pieces between your hands to  form ropes and braid them into a loaf. Take the fourth piece and divide into three for a little braid, which you’ll place vertically on top of the loaf. (If you don’t feel like doing this, just divide the pieces into three and make a simple braid).
  9. Place each loaf on an oiled cookie sheet. Beat the third egg in a small bowl and brush each loaf well with egg. Sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds if you wish.
  10. 10. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees while you let the challah rise for half an hour. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, until golden brown. Cool on a rack before tearing or slicing.
Baba baking

My grandmother used a teaspoon and a drinking glass for measurements. No cookbooks needed.

I confess, I really don’t consult the cookbook anymore for challah. I must take after Baba.   I am pretty casual about measurements and this dough is quite flexible. More eggs? Less oil? No sweetener? It will work. You can use whole wheat flour too; the more you use, the denser the bread will be– usually about 50 percent is right if you don’t want a very heavy loaf.

Despite what some people say, bread dough is pretty forgiving as long as you’re careful about temperature for the yeast — not too hot and not too cold — and give it plenty of time. Bread is one of the original “slow” foods. If you don’t have so much time all at once, you can put the dough in a covered bowl in  the refrigerator and finish the rising and baking the next day — or a few days later.

You could also bake the challah and put it in the freezer to eat later. Sometimes I make a number of mini-challahs (kind of like large rolls) and freeze most of them for later enjoyment. If I do that, I dispense with the top braid (too much trouble) and bake for only 20 minutes or so.

My German grandmother, Oma, remembered how the women made challah in her village of Freudental. All the Jewish women in the village would take their challah dough to the town bakery on Fridays to bake in the big ovens. It must have been a sweet communal event.

My grandmother's family in Freudental

Oma's family in Freudental

A great aspect of the challah dough is that you can also use it to make yeasted pastries, like Baba’s cinnamon rolls or Oma’s plum kuchen. More about that plum kuchen soon!


Filed under baked goods, bread and pizza, fall, Uncategorized