Bonnie's Chocolate Zucchini Muffins

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For much of our childhood my brother and I were members of 4-H.  If you know anything about the organization you are most likely conjuring up images of cattle, funnel cake, and horse shows right now, however we started our own little group and we were more involved in arts and crafts and service projects (the real treat was camp).  Every year we would show our products at the county fair and my mother would help me to prepare a baked good entry.  One year we came upon a superb recipe from a bed and breakfast in Wisconsin for chocolate zucchini muffins. I have not looked at a zucchini the same way since. 

Far and above simply earning a blue ribbon, the muffins were selected to represent our county at the state fair in Springfield, IL (this was quite a big deal to me at the time).  There, they received top honors and the requests for this recipe still come in a few times a year.  Thanks Bonnie, your recipe has left a lasting impression around here.

Visit the White Lace Inn and find the recipe here.

(For the muffin you see above I had to substitute grated chocolate squares for the chips.  Go with the chips if you have them around, it makes a much tastier muffin. Also, I usually forgo the nuts.)

Spicy Olive Bread

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It had sure been a long time since I last made a real yeasted bread. I finally did last weekend. I used the recipe for olive bread from Beth Hensperger's Bread Bible.

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Here in Hyde Park we have an excellent produce shop just a few blocks from my house called, fittingly, Hyde Park Produce. This tiny store is always filled with people piling tofu, cheese, fresh pasta, and yogurt into their hand baskets from the small cooler section and topping that with bulk nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables, fair-trade coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice, and fresh herbs. In addition there is a small deli in the back with Boar's Head meats and cheeses, breads and of course, olives. The variety that we get are green olives mixed with hot peppers and celery and cured in a very spicy oil.

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For this bread I substituted this spicy olive oil for the plain olive oil the recipe calls for and I used these olives in place of traditional green/black varieties. Just before baking and after proofing, I brushed the last of the spicy oil onto the tops of the breads which resulted in a lovely earthy hue. Amazingly, not much of the spiciness baked off and the bread had a delightful dose of heat to it.

These breads turned out quite well. My roommates seemed to like them quite a bit too, which is always a good sign.

Cheddar Gougères

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One afternoon this past weekend I decided to make Gougères.  These airy, eggy, crusty puffs of pâte à choux are delicious right out of the oven.  Traditionally they are made with Gruyère, yet I used this recipe from Leite's Culinaria (and omitted the chives because I did not have them on hand).  This is such a quick appetizer to make.  It might take a few attempts to get the pâte à choux the right consistency, but once it comes out correctly it will be simple in the future.

Brick Oven

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Last Saturday I had the opportunity to meet Lauren Bushnell and to see her partially completed brick oven. There was a small reception and an informal talk given. Lauren has worked at the Red Hen and the Medici Bakery. Most recently she has been baking at home and delivering to people in the Hyde Park/Woodlawn community. With this oven she will be able to produce an incredible amount and hopes to broaden her operations to include subscription services in the community and surrounding areas (e.g. you might sign up for 2 deliveries a week from her and then receive a quantity of fresh bread on the designated days).

The oven is being created with the help of master oven-builder Alan Scott. Above you can see the arch being built on top.  The domed shape will help even out the temperature more than flat surfaces would.  On the day before one wishes to bake a fire is made in the actual baking chamber out of wood and the heat is stored up inside the oven walls. The next day the charred remains of the wood are scrapped out and the oven is ready for baking. These remains are scraped through a section in the front of the oven and can be removed through the hole in the bottom (see above). Thus, interestingly there is no fire involved while baking the actual bread. The oven will hold enough heat to bake for up to a week. It will cool slightly as the week goes on, so the breads to baked will have to be thoughtfully scheduled throughout the week depending on what temperature they should be baked at. Lauren thinks she will be able to bake 80 loaves at a time several times in a day and will bake twice a week.

Below you can see the arch in more detail and what will eventually be the inside of the oven.

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If all goes as planned the oven will be done sometime in August. The oven is being built in Woodlawn at the Experimental Station and it seems that the goal is to ideally have as many people involved with the oven as possible. Whether that will Lauren teaching youth how to bake, community home bakers organizing time to use the oven, or pizza parties using ingredients from the community gardens just across the street.

Many people have offered their support in this endeavor, yet more fundraising needs to happen before the oven can be completed. If you would be interesting in helping out checks (made out to the Experimental Station with "Brick Oven" in the memo line) can be mailed to:

The Experimental Station

6100 S. Blackstone Ave.

Chicago, IL 60637

The Experimental Station is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

I am so happy for Lauren, this truly must be a dream come true for her. I look forward to eating what I am sure will be superb bread and hopefully being able to try the oven out as well.

Gemma: Artopolis Bakery Cafe

Last Saturday Harold and I visited Artopolis Bakery Cafe in Greektown. Set along Halsted amongst noisy Greek restaurants and small grocery stores, this attractive cafe boasts sunlight, space, plenty of seating, and a wide array of foods and drinks. It is no small wonder that the clientele appeared to be largely UIC students. We left with four loaves of bread and two decent cups of coffee and headed to Harold's house.

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Harold laid out a small bowl of arugula, two fine cheeses that had been coming to temperature, and some seltzer water, then we began with the 'French epis long' that you see above.

This was a gorgeous looking bread, dusted with cornmeal and expertly split. The exterior was nice and crusty and the crumb was soft and chewy-though not resilient. The bread had a nice subtle flavor that went wonderfully with the cheeses.  This was not an amazing bread, but certainly quite passable.  It was also the first epis cut I have seen since beginning these reviews, so that increased my enjoyment of this bread.

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In this photograph you can see the French pretzel, the round levain sour dough, and the kalamata olive bread.  In the distance you can see our cheeses (and below you will find a better photograph) The first was a hard raw milk Gruyere-Reserve by Emmi and the second was a softer sheep's milk cheese from Neals Yard Dairy.

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The French pretzel was available with salt or with sesame, we naturally chose salt. A very thin and chewy crust enclosed a crumb with very small and uniform holes.  The crumb was a bit bland and unresilient, though moist and the crust was pleasant, though the salt was doing most of the work, I believe.  This was a mediocre bread, the crumb needs some work.  I would be interested to try this with the sesame in place of the salt. 

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On the left is the French pretzel interior.  To our right is the levain sour dough interior. "Levain" is a French word associated with the English "leavened" or meaning "to rise."  Basically, this simply means that the bread is naturally leavened, or to put it more simply, a sourdough. One could find a more eloquent description of the nuances of this word.

This sour dough round had a beautifully flour dusted top and a thin, light, overly chewy crust.  Some whole wheat flour had been used resulting in a very smooth texture and flavor which was quite nutty and earthy.  The crumb was soft, moist, and unresilient and the crust should have been more substantial and crisper.  The over-all flavors, though nice, would not be described as sour.  Amazingly, the bread did not take cheese well at all.  This bread was a disappointment due to not being nearly as good as it looked.

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We then moved on to our last loaf, the kalamata olive bread, which you see on the right in the above picture (the French epis long interior is on the left). The soft crust was dusted with cornmeal and the crumb was -again- soft, moist, and unresilient. The crumb contained the expected kalamata olives but also. . . chopped onions and flecks of oregano.  Why oh why do people insist on including cold and wet ingredients in an otherwise decent bread?  The flavors were strange and resulted in a sweet taste.  The onions and the olives did not compliment each other well.  Over-all, this tasted like cheap pizza dough or some horrible "fresh baked" creation from Subway.  This was a thoroughly uninspiring bread and something to avoid.

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In conclusion, the Artopolis bakery and cafe looks like a lovely place to spend a quiet afternoon people watching, reading, drinking coffee, and munching on their impressive selection of foods (and I intend to do just that sometime soon) however, their breads are mediocre to poor depending on what is selected.  They suffer from the all too common ailment of seemingly mass-produced breads where the crust is thin, dense, and overly chewy and the crumb is soft, far too moist, and completely unresilient.  These breads had no character and tasted roughly the same if you were to remove the salts, olives, and whole wheat flours.  The French epis long (you can see another interior shot above) and the levain sour dough were the better of the four, but while on the higher end of mediocre, these breads also left something to be desired. 

Cheddar Biscuits

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This morning I made biscuits to go with our breakfast. I sometimes forget that warm and tasty bread can be created without yeast and hours of dedication. I haven't baked bread in quite a while due to time constraints, so it was nice to pull warmed baked goods from the oven after about 10 min. of work. I have decided I should make more biscuits. They are so quick and very versatile. This morning I simply added some shredded Cheddar cheese, but in the past I have experimented with dried herbs, other cheeses, and jams. I based these biscuits on this recipe. I used milk in place of the heavy cream and I replaced 1/3 cup of the all-purpose flour with semolina flour. I added a 1/3 cup of shredded Cheddar to the dry ingredients before adding the milk. Also, a food processor is fairly unnecessary, hands work just fine and there is less to clean in the end.

We split our biscuits and stuffed them with a thin slice of Cheddar and a bit of fried egg. Some soft goat cheese is also tasty as a spread or the biscuits can be eaten plain.

These don't keep that well, so make just enough to be consumed within a few hours or a day. Ideally, eat them warm right out of the oven.

Crumpets

My mother gave me a sweet little cookbook when I was home a few weekends ago entitled Pancakes and Waffles by Kate Habershon. In thanks I took her waffle iron to begin experimenting.

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This morning, in order to coax myself out of bed, I decided to make crumpets using Habershon's recipe. I have made crumpets in the past using various recipes which have produced crumpets with a varying degree of integrity. While this is not my favorite recipe, it did make a perfectly acceptable crumpet.

Crumpets are best warm, right off the griddle, and rubbed with butter so it fills the tiny pores. However, one of the many lovely things about crumpets is that they can be nicely revived in a toaster to enjoy at a later time as well.

Gemma: Bennison's Bakery

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This past Saturday Harold and I ventured to the outskirts of Chicago where lies Evanston, an off-shoot of the city that is neither truly Chicago nor quite a suburb. The purpose of this trek was to visit Jory Downer's  Bennison's Bakery who, along with two other bakers from the U.S., just won the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie (The World Cup of Baking). How lucky we are to have such a notable baker in our own backyard.

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We purchased four items from the busy store: a seeded baguette, a strawberry rhubarb brioche, an S.O.P. round loaf, and a raisin bread loaf. In addition, we ordered coffee and tea and a croissant. We sat on a park bench outside the store and enjoyed our warm beverages while I munched on the croissant. This was a superb croissant, very rich and soft with an incredible flakiness. My all-black attire was covered in greasy-golden specks when I was through.

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We drove back down to Hyde Park, and as usual, planted ourselves hungrily at my dining room table. We began with this beautiful and intriguing strawberry rhubarb brioche. This tasted very much like a danish, which are delicious. This was a very wonderful pastry, but I must say the virtues of the brioche were lost underneath the other ingredients. I love brioche however, so perhaps this would not be as heart-breaking to another. In the end the brioche tasted a bit dry when I didn't have a mouthful of jam to accompany it. The toppings were sweet, but not over the top. All in all, I would have loved to try a plain brioche, which they may in fact sell some days.

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We then moved on to the breads. Clockwise from the top we have the seeded baguette, the S.O.P. round, and the raisin loaf. The seeded baguette was in short one of the best I have had. It was seeded with sesame, black sesame, poppy, and sunflower seeds. It had a perfect crust: not to thick, not to thin, and very crispy. The crumb had great integrity, soft yet strong, well-holed, moist and resilient. The flavor goes great with butter, but is not needed to improve the taste in the least. This was a great, no-nonsense, well-built baguette. My only complaint was that it was perhaps overly seeded. The seed flavors were nice, but it could have been toned down a bit so as not to overpower the breads real flavor. I imagine they also make unseeded baguettes some days as well.

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Next we tried the S.O.P. round. You are probably wondering what such an acronym means and I unfortunately have to admit that we are too. I will have to give the bakery a call in the next few days to figure it out, as the ideas that Harold and I came up with are surely not correct. It is the 'S' that keeps throwing me off. I am fairly confident that the 'O' stands for olives and the 'P' for peppers. This was a very soft and egg-y bread, with a moist crumb and a thin crust (much like a. . . hamburger bun. . .). The bread had very few diced olive pieces and many large yellow, green, and red bell pepper pieces. I do not understand the choice of bell peppers. Their use created wet pockets that were cold, flavorless, and slimy. This bread was unique, but uninspiring. The flavors were strange, bland, and begging for salt. This could make a good garlic bread, perhaps. If cut into thin slices and topped with butter, herbs, and lots of garlic then broiled. Perhaps then the flavors would improve/be covered up and the hamburger bun softness would crisp up as would the slimy bell peppers. This was a strange bread.

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Finally, we moved on to the raisin bread (the interior shot above shows this on the left and the seeded baguette on the right). This was a heavy and dense bread, with a soft and strong crust dusted with cornmeal, and a soft and springy crumb. It was packed with yellow raisins (which are called sultanas, yes?) and fennel seeds which creates a very interesting taste combination that I grew to be quite pleased with. This is a delicious and well-constructed bread which keeps well (I have been enjoying slices for breakfast the past few days).

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Above you can see the interior of the S.O.P. round. Below you can see Harold passed out in my living room after too much bread.

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Bennison's is a lovely bakery. They specialize in pastries and cakes, but their baguettes and croissants were superb. Stay away from the S.O.P. though. I hope to go back to find a plain brioche one day.

Gemma: Fox & Obel

My first experience at Fox & Obel was kind of horrible. I went during my lunch break from work one day to poke around and perhaps buy something unique. I'm all for shelling out too much money for something that I have never seen before and that looks like an exciting kitchen addition, however I was disappointed to see that Fox & Obel simply sells mass marketed gourmet mustards that you can find in any foofy coffee shop and your standard imported British cookies---at about twice the price. I'm sure if I spent more time in there I could find something intriguing and there is something to be said for having all of those items in one store, but I was still over-all unimpressed.

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On this first day I tried their bread, a baguette, and the female employee helping me was impossibly rude and the baguette was impossibly rock-hard. I wouldn't have gone back so soon except that Rob at Vital Information convinced me to give them a second chance.

Harold and I drove up last Sunday and spent a large amount of time looking for parking. Reader be savvy: Fox & Obel will validate your parking ticket if you park across the street in the lot. Harold and I took a gander around the store and then decided coffee was highly in order. We got in line behind 7 or so people in the back cafe area and proceeded to wait for nearly 30 min to even order our coffee! There was a collection about 5 employees behind the counter arranging bagels and chatting while one astoundingly slow woman took orders.

Finally with some caffeine in hand and running low on leisure time we went to select some bread from again, not the most friendly woman. Overall, the experience with the haughty clientele and the bizarre employees was less than great the second time around as well. I did manage to find some excellent fage Greek yogurt and some fancy mineral water that didn't break the bank. Let's see how the bread compared. . .

We ate a pretty tasty brioche on the way home because we were very hungry. Upon our arrival at my place we started with the semolina loaf. In the above picture (beginning at the top left and turning clockwise) we have the semolina loaf, a half eaten mini-baguette (ok, so we started on that in the car too), our 1/4 of the peasant sour, an olive ciabatta pillow, and the ciderhouse dark rye. The semolina didn't seem to have much semolina in it. It was basically a fancy white bread which tasted a bit like a gas oven when you breathed out of your nose as you ate. That sounds pretty awful, but I would say it was a generally inoffensive bread without much going for it. However it did have a decent crust with a soft crumb which had a very nice hole structure.

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Above you can see the interiors of (l-r) the baguette, the semolina loaf, and the olive ciabatta. The baguette was much better than the one I had on my solo trip. Though, it still wasn't spectacular. It was a little flavourless and was too airy. It had a very soft and squishy crumb and a hard yet thin and flaky crust. This baguette was a little too delicate too take seriously.

We then moved to the peasant sour. This was a gorgeous bread. You can see the browned/charred, floured crust in the first picture. Just beautiful. It had a soft and very moist crumb that was dense and springy. I am fairly certain they use a real sourdough starter (thank god), though it had a mild aroma. We used some butter on our last pieces and it did great things for the flavour. This was a good bread in a style I had not seen before.

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(l-r) the semolina loaf and the olive ciabatta again, the peasant sour, and the ciderhouse dark rye. The ciderhouse dark rye was billed as a rye bread made with hard cider. An interesting idea, though the cider flavors were not that pronounced they certainly did add something to the flavor. The exterior of this bread was seeded with caraway. It had a good crust and a moist, soft crumb. The crumb was a very pretty mousy grey-brown and the taste was slightly sweet. This bread went great with cheddar. This was also a wonderful and unique bread.

Lastly, we tried the olive ciabatta pillow. This ciabatta had nice holes (much nicer than some of the other bakeries we have been too), a traditional crusty-crust with a glossy crumb. The crumb had a lovely cool, creamy texture. Oddly, the first bite of the crust I took tasted like slightly burnt popcorn. . In any event, the ciabatta was filled with many kinds of superb whole olives, much more delicious than the typical one type-diced. I thought this was delicious and it went great with chevre.

Overall, I still can't really stand Fox & Obel, but their breads have improved greatly in my mind. Stay away from the baguettes and the semolina loaf and go instead for the unique, rustic, darker breads like the peasant sour and the ciderhouse dark rye. The olive ciabatta pillow would be a tasty and quick lunch if you are in the area (and probably much cheaper than actually using their lunch counter).

Sage, Pine Nut, and Pecorino Scones

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I really wanted to bake something this morning, but it is so nice out that I couldn't bring myself to devote a lot of time to it. I hadn't made scones in a long time and they seemed to be the perfect midmorning baking event for me.

I ended up throwing together some delicous scones. I am impressed. Here is the recipe:

Sage, Pine Nut, and Pecorino Scones

Preheat oven to 400F

In a large bowl combine 1 3/4 C unbleached all-purpose flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder, and 2 tablespoons sugar.

Work in 5 tablespoons unsalted butter with your hands until you have a coarse meal.

Then incorporate 2 tablespoons pine nuts, 3 tablespoons grated pecorino, and 1 and a half tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh sage.

In another bowl mix 1/2 cup milk and 1 tablespoon prepared pesto.

Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and add the milk/pesto.

Combine all into a sticky dough, do not over mix. When just coming together knead a few times with lightly floured hands.

Press the mixture into the bottom of the large bowl you are working in to form a smooth circle under an inch thick and cut into 8 equal triangles (as you would cut a pie).

Carefully transfer these pieces to a baking sheet lined with a silpat mat or parchment paper, brush the tops lightly with water, and let rest for 5-10 minutes.

Bake for about fifteen minutes or until the tops are turn golden brown. Cool on a wire rack.

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These turned out so well I can hardly believe it. Of course, you can be creative and add whatever extras you please. I love savory fillings with a sweet dough. Serve warm with butter.

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Harold: Argo Georgian Bakery

ok, here's the deal:  the victuals to be had at argo georgian bakery (located at 2812 w. devon ave.) are so damn good that i won't even bother wasting your time telling you about the place itself.  ok, i'm lying.  the neighborhood is one in which it is always a joy to walk around, but on the particular day we went the streets were packed with people just enjoying the weather.  the place itself is probably the third most unassuming place of business in which i have ever been.  sure they have a coffee urn; sure they will sell you strange (but tasty! but tasty!) georgian mineral waters; yes they stock caviar; but they basically exist to sell you bread.  ahh, the bread....

we began with a spinach pie which was fairly good, but a touch low on salt.  still, the way it was seasoned gave it an odd (almost iranian tasting?) flavor that helped to balance out the lack of salt.  overall it was unusual and worth trying, especially if you like spinach.

we quickly (as in withing seconds) moved on to something called a tapluna, which was a honey and walnut pastry.  this was quite nice and the sweetness was surprisingly moderate for something that featured honey so prominently.  that said, i don't really go for sweet stuff.

microseconds later, we were inhaling a hachapuri that was still warm.  this was a puffy, flaky, crumbly, steamy pastry filled with a judicious blend and quantity of cheeses (namely mozzarella, farmer's cheese, and feta), a fair description of which defies words--polite ones anyway.  better still, near as i can tell they make these constantly, so one is quite likely to enjoy a hachapuri that is still warm.  gemma and i went back up to the counter for another.  we were rewarded moments later when another tray came out of the oven and i held in my hands a paper plate containing a hachapuri that had been baking not ninety seconds before.  gemma and i both burned our mouthes on our respective first bites of this second hotter hachapuri, but undeterred continued to burn our mouthes until all that remained was a pile of crumbs and two smiles.  seriously people, these are good.

eventually we made it back to gemma's place, where we investigated some more normal (read: less stuffed) breads.  first came the puri, or georgian round bread.  this was quite good, quite round, and fairly flat.  it looked a bit like mutant over-grown indian naan, actually.  looks can be deceiving, however: the taste reminded me more of a crusty italian bread, but with more salt.  this bread is great alone or with butter, but would probably also tolerate a fairly mild cheese.  while it would not lessen your enjoyment of a stronger cheese, a stronger cheese would probably lessen your enjoyment of this bread (a bit), as it is rather mild in flavor.

we moved on to something called a shoti--or long bread--which was shaped much like baguette.  this was creamier and denser in texture, as well as slightly moister inside.  this was about what was going through my head when gemma asked, "do you think this tastes like honeydew?"  i looked at her like she had three ears and antennae.  "seriously," she said, "i think this tastes a little like honeydew..."  i looked at her as though she was snacking on kleenex.  "just try it."  i did.  nothing.  "well?"  i took another bite.  and then something truly strange happened: i tasted honeydew.  now we both know that it is impossible for bread to taste like honeydew, so what did i learn from this?  don't trust gemma: she'll mess with your mind and make you taste things that aren't there.  her powers of mind control are terrifying.

despite all my rambling on, there is a one-word verdict about this bakery: GO.

(n.b.: for those who have speculated that i cannot be pleased, above is evidence to the contrary.  see also my review of the red hen bakery.)

Gemma: Argo Georgian Bakery

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Last Sunday the temperature in Chicago reached above 70F.  It was glorious.  Harold and I drove up to Devon with the windows down and then walked our way to Argo Georgian Bakery (2812 W. Devon Ave. Chicago, IL 60659.  773/764-6322). Upon entering the quaint storefront, the most unique and obvious feature of Argo is the brick, domed oven in the center of the store.  According to a website called Savoring Chicago, the kind of oven is called a 'tune' oven (*Update* the oven is in fact called a 'tone').   Further, the site claims that is the only Georgian bakery in the country.  Another Googling seems to support this (though there is one in Canada).  As you will read, I believe we Chicagoans are quite blessed in this case.

The staff and owner are very sweet and friendly and they even opened up the lid to the domed oven to show us the interior when we walked to the railing to gaze at it.

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Harold and I purchased three items to eat in house, plus two loaves of bread, and a seltzer water.  We sat at one of the few, small tables and began with a spinach pie.  This was a savory pastry with a soft, not particularly flaky crust and filled with chopped and cooked spinach.  The spinach tasted as if it could well be fresh and my only complaint was that the overall effect was bland.  With some seasonings, even as simple as some salt and pepper added to the spinach (or perhaps more decadently, some type of cheese such as feta), the taste might have been improved.  All the same however, this was a very worthwhile purchase.

Next we tried a tapluna, which is a honey and walnut pie.  It consists of a long triangle of flaky pastry dough, rolled from the base of the triangle to the tip, dusted with powdered sugar, and filled with the honey and nut paste.  This was also quite delicious, though perhaps a bit too sweet for my tastes.

Lastly, we dug into a hachapuri (see picture below), which to our delight we realized was still quite warm.  And might I say, this alone is worth the trip to Argo regardless of where you, lovely reader, might live.  The hachapuri was a square shaped puff of flaky, golden pastry filled with the most divine mixture of mozzarella, feta, and farm cheese which, thanks to the still warm pastry, was warm, creamy, and oozing out of the pastry as we ate. 

At this point, to our horror, Harold and I realized that in our overzealous consumption of these delicious things I had completely forgotten to take pictures before digging in, which must be a mark of how good everything looked.  (See how well-disciplined Harold and I are for you most of the time?  Sometimes it is pure torture to take a decent picture before ripping into some fabulous looking loaf or pastry).  At about the same time, with no real consultation, Harold and I decided we MUST have another hachapuri.  This batch had come right out of the oven, and as I already admitted on my post at Chicago Foodies, I burnt my face on the hot steam escaping from the puff's interior as I bit into it perhaps a bit too hungrily.  The warmer the better folks, but do be careful.  I was lucky to escape without a red mark on my nose and cheek from the burning steam.

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The second hachapuri was gone in seconds and as we came back to our surroundings we noticed how quickly the hachapuri was disappearing as it emerged from the oven every 10 minutes or so.  People were being asked to either wait our come back.  This said, let me clear that you simply must try a hachapuri if you visit Argo and it would be quite wise to leave an extra 20-30 minutes just in case you need to wait.

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Harold and I then returned to my apartment to try the two breads.  The first was a long bread called a shoti (pictured above).  You probably aren't going to believe this, but the first taste this bread gives off is exactly like honey-dew melon.  This is not a bad thing, but just an odd one.  This taste disappears into more traditional bread flavors almost immediately, and you might not even notice it.   This is a soft, creamy, and chewy bread.  It has a dry crust, a slightly salty taste (though a bit less so than the second bread below) and a dense, glossy crumb.

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The second bread was shaped in a large circle and is called a puri. This was a very chewy, quite dense bread, with many tiny holes.  It had a dry crust and a glossy crumb which was creamy in texture to the mouth.  It had a pleasant slightly salty taste and I believe it would be fantastic with a dill Havarti.

Both of these breads were superb and very unique.  I have never had anything quite like them and I highly recommend giving them a try.  Argo Georgian Bakery was quite impressive and I will definitely be back.  Harold commented and I agree that this was the best bakery we have visited since Red Hen.  One of the best.

Dinner Party: Sicilian Scroll and Sourdough Baguettes

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Last night John, Molly, Colie, Kati and I were invited to Ben's for a dinner party. He has a beautiful apartment and it was wonderfully arranged for the occasion. We arrived around 5 and opened some wine and set out olives, cheeses, and bread to nibble on while watching the NCAA games.

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One fun thing about Ben's place is that he is able to project his television. We were able to watch the game on a HUGE screen. Here I am in front of the projector drinking wine between the games.

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The bread we snacked on before dinner was a Sicilian Scroll that I had made. This is a semolina flour based bread. Semolina flour comes from durum wheat which is what pastas are often made of. I used the recipe from Bread by Christine Ingram & Jennie Shapter. The bread turned out pretty well with a good crust and a soft, dense, slightly crumbly crumb.

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This picture shows more of the detail of the crumb.

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I also made sourdough baguettes. This was my first time using my recently made sourdough starter for bread. The timing of the evening was thrown a bit off and subsequently my baguettes dried out too much. Therefore, they didn't expand while baking and the crust baked much faster than the interior. They still look kind of pretty, however they weren't that tasty. It was a disappointment but I will try them again soon. I used the recipe and lovely tutorial from eGullet on Sourdough Bread. A fantastic resource.

Johnandflowers

John made his excellent broccoli and apple soup for the first course (there's John above). For the main course Ben made 3 quiches. The most interesting one was his 'experimental' quiche. It included asparagus, apple, and chevre. It was actually quite good. With some alterations in the spices it could be incredible. Kati brought an apple pie and a fruit tart from the Medici. The apple pie was really amazing. I will have to go to the Medici and try that again.

Molly

We had a great time, ate excellent food, and drank QUITE a bit of wine (there was a big wine sale at the Co-Op). We drunkenly promised to do this more often and I really hope that happens.

Wine

Some of the wine we consumed.

Cranberry Vanilla Almond Biscotti

Bscotti
I wanted to bake a semolina loaf tonight, but realized late in the evening that I was out of yeast. . .
Instead, I decided to make Cranberry, Vanilla, Almond Biscotti. I made biscotti for the first time about 6 months ago and I am still amazed how easy it is.

Craberry Vanilla Almond Biscotti

I based this recipe on Martha Stewart's Pecan Cranberry Biscotti Recipe.
Here is the recipe with my modifications:

Preheat oven to 350F

In one large bowl combine 2 and 1/2 C unbleached all-purpose flour, 1 tsp baking powder, a pinch of salt, and 1 and 1/4 C sugar.

In a second bowl whisk 4 eggs and 1 and 1/2 tsp vanilla.

Combine all and mix until a dough begins to form.

Add 1 C dried cranberries and a 1/2 C slivered almonds. Stir to combine.

Once the dough begins to smooth out, use floured hands to further incorporate the dry ingredients.

Form into a log (about 12 inches long, 4 inches wide, and 1 - 1 and 1/2 inches thick).

Dust with sugar.

Bake on a prepared baking sheet for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown.

Remove from oven and allow to cool (this allows it to firm up before cutting).

Reduce heat to 285F

With a serrated knife cut short-ways into 1 inch pieces.

Return the pieces on their fat side to the baking sheet and bake for 20 min or until golden brown.

Remove from oven and flip each biscotti piece over and return to the oven for another 20 min.

Remove from oven and allow the pieces to cool on a wire rack.

Place in an airtight container.

Biscotti

Biscotti keeps for quite a long time. It will become harder, but all the better for dipping in coffee. Keeping the same basic recipe, other ingredients can be substituted for the cranberries and almonds. I've tried chocolate pieces and walnuts or lemon zest and almond before with success. Also, once baked the biscotti is easy to dip in melted chocolate.

Greek Easter Bread

Easter

Saturday night I took the train out to my parent's house. My brother is on spring break from college and our family decided to host Easter. It was a small crowd, mainly just my mother's side of the family. (Her two brothers and their families, my grandmother, and also John and his mother joined us.)

I woke horribly early on Sunday morning to begin the onion tart and the Greek Easter bread that I was contributing. In addition we served a fruit salad, a garden salad, ham, a broccoli and cheese casserole, mashed potatoes, and olives. And for dessert Lynn brought a key lime pie, Dave baked a delicious lime cheesecake, and Carol made one of her fabulous apple pies.

I used the onion tart recipe from Molly at Orangette which I had tried before and was very pleased with. For the Greek Easter bread I used a recipe from Alberto of Il Forno. It turned out great. (Well, the loaf on the right at least. I made the dough for the loaf on the left first and panicked when it did not appear to be rising. I made the second loaf just in case and it ended up being quite superior. It was much more airy and light.)

Easter_bread

I decided to opt for the red eggs as the pictures I saw of this traditional color were stunning. However, the color didn't hold well and I ended up with pink eggs nestled in a ring of red-dyed bread.

The bread had a glorious crust, a wonderful aroma, and a buttery, sweet, and delicate crumb. I will definitely make this bread again. I bet the recipe would be divine if I made small rolls stuffed with a bit of gruyere or a pat of dark chocolate.

Harold: Breadsmith Bakery

breadsmith is located squarely in the lincoln park yuppie-zone, at 1710 n. wells.  while i am normally loathe to countenance any bakery selling gourmet dog biscuits i meticulously prepared myself to make an exception in this case.  sadly my charity was misplaced.

the premises were clean and appeared to be well maintained, but standing there i found myself strangely unable to muster any interest whatsoever in the coffee.  i have no idea what came over me, actually.  while the bakery seemed to be "service oriented," i could not help but notice that the short-term memory of the gentleman helping us was sub-human.  also of general interest: breadsmith is hardly a back-to-basics type bakery.  a brief look at their website confirms this.

we began with a roll that was mild--almost tasty?--in flavor and had a fairly nice crust.  it would have done well with more salt but was otherwise ok.  unfortunately it reminded me of spongecake.  queer, no?

we continued with something called a simit.  it had a slightly sweet and insubstantial crust.  it is slightly tragic that i will never get back the three minutes of my life that i spent tasting this bread.

subsequently we tried the salt stick.  the salt stick had an impressively chewy crust with caraway seeds and the overall flavor was (wait for it....wait for it....) salty.  while the caraway was certainly a nice touch, it was rather overdone.  be that as it may, this bread was without doubt "best in show."

the ill-conceived focaccia roll seemed like something straight out of alice in wonderland, if only inasmuch as i could think nothing but "curiouser and curiouser..." as i ate it.  chief among the myriad sins committed in the design and execution of this "bread" were that it was structurally unsound and far too salty.

the final item we tried was the cheddar-jalapeño bread.  in its present form, it is too cheesy and a tad short on the jalapeños and really ought to be reinvented as a roll that is never served any other way but pipping-hot.  other possible improvements include the use of better (white?) cheddar and fresh jalapeños in lieu of the pickled ones that are presently employed.

unfortunately the best thing i can say about it is that it is not just like every other yuppie-zone bakery.  usually the preceding remark would be a compliment, but in this case i fear it is not: any amount of conformity to the gourmet bread status quo be of great service to this bakery.

See Gemma's Review below.

Gemma: Breadsmith Bakery


breadsmith
Originally uploaded by dumin.

Two weekends ago Harold and I, accompanied by our friend Paul, visited the Breadsmith Bakery at 1710 N. Wells in Chicago. As you can see from the link, Breadsmith is a chain located throughout the Midwest. The bakery we went to is located in the upscale neighborhood of Old Town and the clientele seemed representative. I lived a few blocks from this bakery with my uncles for a few summers and had been interested in returning for some time.

Upon entering the store I noticed the dog biscuits for sale and almost turned around to leave. But, I was humbled when I made it up to the register and noticed that every penny of their sale goes to an animal shelter. I took a picture of their lovely ovens, but was confronted by the manager who probed me for information on what the photo was for. I was caught off guard and rambled about 'really loving ovens. . ' or something like that. He asked if I was from a trade magazine and if so said they had stock photos. I regret not asking for one, because I would love a big glossy picture. This leads me to the question, would he consider this a trade magazine? Hrm. . . In any event, I am now afraid to post the lovely picture I took of their large and shiny ovens, so you will all just have to visit to see for yourself.

Here is what we selected (clockwise from the top ring):
Simit
Cheddar Jalapeno Sourdough
Salt Sticks (2)
Small Focaccia
Sourdough Roll

The simit had a delicious aroma of nutty toasted sesame. It was moist and very sweet. The flavor was a bit odd. The crust too soft, actually the whole bread was so soft that it almost disintegrated in your mouth. Oddly, it almost tasted and smelled like a commercially produced soft whole wheat sandwich loaf. Simit is a traditional Turkish bread which is indeed supposed to be quite sweet and nutty. However, this crust was much too soft and should instead be quite firm and chewy.  Here is a shot of the interior:
Breadsmith_interior

(l-r) Cheddar Jalapeno Sourdough, Focaccia, Simit, Sourdough Roll.

The cheddar jalapeno sourdough contained a massive amount of cheese with jalapeno slices and caraway seeds in the center. The bread was delicious and enjoyable, but this was mainly due to the cheese and not to the bread itself. The extra ingredients were spread onto the rolled out dough, it was rolled up into a loaf and baked. Without these extra ingredients the bread would be bland and unremarkable. It had a very soft crumb and chewy crust. Tasty, but solely do to the extras. 

The salt sticks were covered in caraway seeds which went fantastically with the saltiness of the bread. This was a chewy bread with a nice, glossy, chewy crust and a soft, fine crumb. It would be lovely with a soup or pasta. Perhaps ideal with a warm carrot and caraway soup (ooh, I'll have to make that!) or a caraway and tomato based pasta sauce.

The small focaccia was similar to the cheddar jalapeno sourdough in that it would be an uneventful product were in not for the ingredients the bread was stuffed with. (In fact, it tasted like the bread would be a mediocre over-sized pretzel without the extra ingredients). It was also a rolled dough, stuffed with chopped tomato, white cheddar/Parmesan, salt, and spinach. It was very tasty and soft. It unfortunately fell apart when cut. Golden, thin, soft, and glossy crust. It was not oily, which is a plus. A second shot of the interiors:
Interior_breadsmityh

(l-r) Salt Stick, Cheddar Jalapeno Sourdough, Focaccia, Simit.

Lastly, the sourdough roll had a very hard crust and a moist light crumb. It had small, but plentiful holes and crustiness that would be ideal for soups but a bit too hard for eating alone. The aroma was indiscernible and while the taste was sour, I suspect (though am highly disappointed to say) that they must use an artificial sourdough additive rather than using a real starter.

Overall, this is a nice neighborhood bakery with solid products, but nothing to right home about. The salt sticks were the winner.

banana muffins (IMBB13)

Banana_muffin

John and I went to Trader Joe's this morning and bought $lots$ of delicious stuff. Upon our return home some major kitchen reorganization was in order. While cleaning out our freezer we noticed a bulk of frozen over-ripe bananas. I used Clotide's Banana Pecan Muffin recipe---with 2 little changes. I omitted the pecans because I didn't have any on hand and I used 4 egg whites instead of regular eggs because I had some left over that needed to be used up.

Banana_muffin_interior
This yielded a light and airy interior that I was quite pleased with.

Irish Soda Bread

Irish_soda_bread

Last night I had two friends over for an early evening St. Patrick's Day celebration while all the other roommates were out. I bought some vintage Dubliner cheddar, some Kerrygold butter, and served them with delicious Irish Soda Bread just out of the oven. (Harold brought the Guinness and whiskey).

I used the recipe offered at 101 Cookbooks and added 1 C of baking raisins and 2 Tbl of caraway seeds. I can't imagine making soda bread without these superb additions (a traditional Irish method too!). I also had to add a full 2 cups of buttermilk.

It turned out wonderfully. A slathering of butter or a piece of cheese on a thick slice with a Guinness at my side made it a meal.