Category: Bread and Biscuits


The most relaxing thing I have ever drank in my life is surprisingly not gin and tonic. Or a Tom Collins. It includes no alcohol in the least.

People who know me would then guess that tea is the most relaxing thing I have ever drank, but that’s not quite it either. While I profess a love for tea and follow it devoutly when I’m not drinking coffee to keep myself on a time table of epically challenging proportions. If I mapped it out, it would probably look like a two year old’s rainbow-colored scribble drawing. I would insist it was an elephant despite being nothing more than an incoherent network of haphazard lines. Apparently, this is just how the female brain works. It makes sense that my schedule, which revolves so heavily on my thought process to make and meet it, should resemble a tangle of yarn. Right? Tea smooths most of the kinks over and helps people unwind… or wakes me up if I’m drinking English Breakfast Tea. But in truth, the properties of tea, much like those of soup, are sometimes not enough to get the truly tough tangles out.

At times like that, I think of lavender, and I’m not talking about the smell.

Sure, lavender soap is awesome, and although there are more exposed nerve endings in the nasal cavity than there are anywhere else in the body, there are other ways of taking it in.

My hometown has a limited number of local tea and coffee establishments. Like many suburban towns, we are composed mainly of golf courses, subdivisions, strip malls, and fast food chains. I used to frequent one about twenty minutes away until their customer service went down hill. After three years of being looked down on for being a minimum wage worker at a pizza restaurant, I expect to be treated like a human being when I am being served at the very least. One of life’s greatest challenges is to respect people who cannot be bothered to at least make an effort to respect me. I personally don’t care if my server is old enough to be my mother. I am a paying customer. I had to put up with plenty of high school students as a pizza slave, disrespectful kids and people whose parents called me demanding to know why they were overcharged (and in the instance I am thinking of, I took the right amount of money; the parents simply assumed that I was wrong… but do I get to tell them that they’re dumb-asses? No! Instead, I have to act professionally and calmly explain that their son paid with the roll of quarters I supposedly. At least they admitted I was right, but still… stuff like that sticks like cheese sticks to the soles of shoes, filling all of the crevices. That kind of thing changes a person). I know friends who have had to deal with the same thing in reverse, middle-aged people who throw temper tantrums about stores being sold out of the television on sale when the flyer says, in fine print, “Limit 4 per store.”

In the hub of this tea shoppe, I discovered lavender lemonade. It was relaxation in a cup, a tranquil taste that followed me all night at work while I was dealing with the evening rush and the chaos at the counter and the testy customers.

At times, lavender lemonade is not practical for instilling a calming sense, particularly at the end of the semester, and particularly when it has to be portable. The conundrum I faced was transforming this relaxing substance into something class-appropriate. Of course, I didn’t have to bring something “British” to Victorian Literature, but since I’ve spent the past four years dabbling with it, studying it, savoring it, absorbing it–hell, living it, I figured I should live a little British on the cooking side as well.

With the help of the internet (my greatest sous chef aside from my three-quart aluminum sauce pan) and a little ingenuity, I found the answer in comfort food.

I’m talking biscuits. British biscuits.

To this day, the language differences between American English and British English fascinate me. The oddest of the bunch for me is the “jumper” (American: sweater) because I have always thought of Oshkosh when I hear the word “jumper” due to spending most of my very early childhood in them. I’ve very seldom been to the theater with friends, but I frequent the theatre, a spelling difference so minimal that it has become a habit. Others, I acknowledge without that little twinge of discomfort that jumpers cause, like the “x” in “connexion” and the “u” in “colour.” And, despite having family in the South, this semester in Victorian Literature educated me on the original meaning of “biscuit” (American: cookie). Not the most valuable lesson I learned in the course, but interesting enough to sprinkle on a blog post like sugar.

Since I had already made bread for my Writing Center coworkers and minestrone for my creative nonfiction course, I plotted something sweet to finish the week off with, a relaxing biscuit form of the beverage that soothed my troubled mind. Of course, eating lavender doesn’t appeal to everyone; in fact, after trying a sip of Maye’s pear and lavender martini, Caity told her (and later me) that it tasted like bath soap to her. I can’t rightly call it an acquired taste; it is just something that I happen to enjoy, sort of like the act of writing itself.  I went in with reservations and left with a new appreciation for something that I didn’t originally consider edible.

Now, if only I could have that same mindset with seafood…

Lavender Lemon Shortbread Biscuits
(Adapted from this recipe)

Close-up

Ingredients

  • 1 stick butter
  • ¼ cup and 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup corn starch
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp dried lavender flowers (most likely available at your local organic food store for a reasonable price)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Cream butter and sugar with a fork in a bowl.
  3. Combine flour and corn starch in a separate bowl.
  4. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture. Add lemon juice. Mix. I found it effective to use my hands in combining them.
  5. Add lavender.
  6. Flour work surface and knead dough 5 to 10 times.
  7. Pam the pan. Insert dough into pan and press into a uniform thickness of about ¼ inch. (Trust me… this is easier than rolling it out.)
  8. Prick shortbread with fork.
  9. Bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, carefully tap pan against the side of the oven to deflate it. Bake additional 10 to 15 minutes until cookies are golden brown.
  10. Sprinkle with remaining sugar. Let cool for 5 minutes. Slice cookies.

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Cooking is not a science. Some people say it is, but the truth—or my truth—of the matter is, there has never been anything scientific for me about cooking. I simply walk into the kitchen and observe. Look around me. What is available? I am a forger in familiar territory. My eyes have roamed these shelves more times than the Canadian geese have migrated. I just exaggerated a little bit, but it’s not technically lying if you’re just adding something to the truth, particularly if you’re a story teller. In the same way, cooking is not a science. I don’t let the truth, or a version of it, get in the way of a good culinary experiment. I suspect Benjamin Franklin did not expect lightning to strike his kite any more than Thomas Edison suspected the wire in his light bulb to glow. With cooking, it’s different. I expect the outcome to be positive in the most general sense of the word because I’ve combined ingredients that I like to eat and brought them together in harmony, sort of like a choir, only pleasing to all five senses rather than just the eyes and ears.

Granted, positive things don’t always happen when I mix two things together. I once had a hankering for something sweet and spicy, so I mixed some hot curry powder with creamy peanut butter. The problem is, I used too much and wound up with something that tasted vaguely of sawdust and cayenne pepper. Point taken: curry and peanut butter cannot simply be mixed together. My food taught me yet another valuable lesson.

But I didn’t need food to teach me mathematics. I needed a good high school calculus teacher and a good college calculus professor, and even by their powers combined, they couldn’t make me understand anything past series. Science requires precision, and cooking… well, cooking requires a lot of taste testing. Try that in a chem lab and let me know how it turns out.

I also didn’t need food to teach me philosophy, but it did help a little bit. You are what you eat, after all. I imagine that would make me some sort of chicken soup. Some days, I’m nothing more than ordinary chicken noodle. On others, I’m a zesty chicken chili. On others still, I must be chicken curry since I eat it for breakfast on occasion. In either case, I am an odd arrangement of ingredients that vary only slightly from day to day—and nine times out of ten, a recipe for disaster no thanks to some hereditary clumsiness.

I eat; therefore, I am.

People say baking is a science, too. An exact science. If you put a few extra drops of lemon juice in a batch of soup, then fine. It will be a little lemony. Toss in something to balance the flavor out, and life is good. But some extra flour in the cookie dough, a missing egg, and a sporadic oven, and suddenly, your warm, fluffy dough pillows turn into crumbly pucks of horror and sadness.

Fact: I am not a scientist. Last time I was in the chemistry lab, I nearly set the school on fire. Too bad my air-headed track athlete lab partner was cool-headed enough to turn off the gas. Otherwise, I would have been a hero among high schoolers for the first, and probably last, time in my life (because, at least in my high school, bookworms with straight A’s were hardly material for the “cool” table). I am a literary critic… I guess. That’s what you become when you finish master’s coursework in English, right? I approach recipes for baking the same way I approach recipes for soup, which I approach the way I approach prose: they are blueprints totally open to interpretation. And if my interpretation happens to include cloves where they were not included before, then who’s to stop me if the bread supports my reading?

Much like books, everyone has their own taste in food. Mine wavers somewhere between Italian, Mexican, and Japanese on most days, with heaps of soup and sandwiches to fill the gaps. The original more than likely holds enough interest, but I have a strange way of looking at the world. I read significance into things and savor contradictions the same way I do curry… although some days, I feel like the world is insipid as plain gelatin—or else it sets me smoking like a charcoal grill.

I’m not hard to please, but underneath all that literary critic frosting is a thin remnant of my childhood, the wafer of writer-ness that, like a Twinkie, will endure long past its expiration date. I was, and still am, a storyteller. Even in verbal recall, I can turn something as ordinary as going to the grocery store into a harrowing tale of how the lady on her cell phone was right in front of the stock selection and how some child in the produce asked his mom if they could have broccoli for dinner. Little facts like that stick with me, especially if they stir up some emotional reaction. Of course, by the time I retell the story, the lady with the cell phone will have been there for five minutes instead of 90 seconds. But then, I could get into the whole discussion of perceived versus actual time; it’s not a lie. It’s just my version of the truth, my perception.

I suppose food really has taught me something about that whole perceived versus actual time business, but perhaps I should save that for another blog entry.

I am not a scientist. I am an interpreter. I can’t be boxed in by lines and directions, but I can be inspired by them… hence, the creative nonfiction class. Of course, not crediting the inspiring force in some way is called plagiarism in my line of work (although I suppose creative writers call it artful stealing… or borrowing, depending on who you are). I saw a bread recipe on Stephanie’s blog, Modern Christian Woman, and I knew the minute I did that I had to try it, and as most interpreters do, I adapted this recipe to my diabolical purposes of feeding a hungry Writing Center staff during what would be my last end-of-semester party with them. They have given their heartfelt approval, and I pass it on to her with gratitude.

Interpreting is only half of my job, though. As a literary critic, I am expected to share my interpretations with others, for better or worse. After all, what good are two ginormous loaves of bread without a company to break it with?

Garlic Cheddar Herb Bread

(Inspired by Stephanie’s Recipe for Garlic Cheese Bread)

Epic Loavery

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 2 tbsp. minced garlic
  • ½ cup warm water
  • 4 ½ tsp active dry yeast
  • 2 tbsp spicy Italian seasoning grinder spice (sold at Kroger, but you could easily add salt and red pepper flakes to Italian seasoning.
  • 3 tbsp, plus 2 tbsp shredded Parmesan and Romano cheese

Directions

  1. Heat butter, milk, sugar, garlic, and grinder spice in a small sauce pan until butter is melted. Let cool.
  2. Combine yeast and water in a large bowl and let dissolve. Trust me… use a large bowl. You will kneading (spelling intentional) it later. 🙂
  3. Add eggs, milk mixture, cheeses (reserve 2 tbsp of the grated, though) and half of the flour to the yeast. Mix with a wooden spoon.
  4. Add enough flour to make a dough (roughly an additional 1-2 cups).
  5. Knead dough for 7-10 minutes.
  6. Spray bowl with pam and return dough to bowl. Cover and let rise for an hour. The dough should double in size.
  7. Punch down dough. Remove from bowl and make two loaves of roughly equal size. Place on a cookie sheet, cover, and let rise again (about one hour). The loaves should again double in size.
  8. Give the bread a rubdown with olive oil. I did this with my hands, but a brush would work as well. Grind some extra spice on top. Sprinkle with remaining parmesan. Pat everything down nicely.
  9. Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes.

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I just bought my first box of saltines since 2010. These crackers are fit for all manners of cheese, particularly those deli slices of colby or colby jack. They are also fit for my off-brand peanut butter. And if I am having a bland day, I’ll eat them plain. They are, in short, the ideal snack food because of their versatility. They don’t taste like anything and can therefore be topped to the choosing of the consumer, or else devoured naked in times of duress to satisfy a salt craving.

But they are not fit for my soup.

Imagine, if you will, building a house (or any sort of structure, which, for the record, you don’t want my help with. I will make your construction gents lemonade and feed them with whatever I have on hand, but if you give me a hammer, I will somehow manage to lodge it in the concrete foundation or get it stuck in the PCP pipe… never mind how. I will manage. Trust me.). Now, a house is a very personal thing because it needs decorated and furnished with lots of stuff that speaks about who you are. You put stuff in it. Make it your own. Hang pictures on the walls. Throw area rugs on the floor. I’ve seen this happen with soup: some people delicately dip their crackers as they do biscuits (re: cookies) into tea. Others feel more destructive and crush the offending wafers to a fine powder, then sprinkle their remains into the bowl like the ashes of a cremated fisherman. As for me, I’m a dipper, and if I get oyster crackers, I will eat them prior to taking the first bite of the soup.

Returning to my point: say you’re at a diner and you order a bowl of soup. It looks a little like Progresso. This calls for some crackers, as they are the closest thing to pleasant texture you are guaranteed to get out of that bowl.

Say you’re in Mount Pleasant at The Brass Café, and you order your nine dollar sandwich with soup (which you always should at The Brass). You order the three bean (you’ve already had the chicken and rice once before, and it was good, but you’re looking for something a little different). It comes out. It’s tomato based and spicy enough to make your nose run a marathon but not spicy enough for you to lose IQ points by continuing to eat it. Aside from cooling your mouth with the water you ordered, you cut the flavor’s intensity with the crackers. Joy and bliss ensue as you finish the soup. It’s nice soup, and you don’t really have any alternatives for dipping because you bought it from someone else.  Similarly, when you buy a house, you don’t have much choice of what’s already in it, but you can change it once it belongs to you.

Just so with my soup. I spend a good, hard hour and a half in the kitchen manufacturing the Monticello of soups (I wouldn’t compare it to the Sydney Opera House or Frank Lloyd Wright’s stuff, but in terms of quality, it’s decent enough to be a Monticello), cutting vegetables into uniform chunks and turning my little slice of heaven into the Tower of London by torturing myself half to death with the smell of it cooking. The last thing I want to do is default to painting all of the walls white and buying my furniture from WalMart (unless your wallet necessitates it, which, if you’re building the Monticello, I doubt you are in poverty). I don’t cook anything I don’t like, and I happen to enjoy my soup quite a bit. In fact, it’s probably my favorite thing to eat. So, if I’m spending that much time on my soup and plan to dunk something in it, why not make it something worthwhile?

Generally, I think soup is fine as it is and doesn’t need any help, especially if I’m in control of everything that goes into it. In week 2, I bought a nice bakery loaf of multi-grain bread to go with my chicken broccoli-cheddar soup. This week, just before going to work on my chipotle chicken chowder, I decided that something delicious needed to go in there, and what better than some garlic-cheddar biscuits? They’re the only reason I ever want to go to Red Lobster and Ruby Tuesday’s (I’m still weary of fish, and while Ruby Tuesday’s has a decent salad bar, I personally think that Bennigan’s has better burgers), and if I had know they were so easy to make, I would never have had a reason to set foot in either establishment in the first place (if not for Ruby Tuesday’s Salad bar, that is).

Although I don’t trust in skinny chefs, I do believe in eating healthy, so I’ve altered a recipe I found online to omit the butter (gasp), and they turned out fine. The world did not careen off of its axis or anything drastic like that, and I didn’t miss the butter flavor once I sopped these in chowder stock. I would call them Monticello windows, but that’s carrying the metaphor too far, don’t you think?

Chipotle Cheddar and Garlic Biscuits for the Sole

The Finished Product

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. sugar
  • 2 tbsp. canola oil / butter
  • 1 tsp. olive oil / more butter
  • 3 tsp. parsley flakes (reserve 1 tsp.)
  • 3 tsp. garlic powder
  • ¼ cup shredded chipotle cheddar cheese

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In bowl, mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, sugar, 2 tsp. parsley flakes, and garlic powder.
  3. Add oil and milk. Mix thoroughly with a fork.
  4. Fold in cheese.
  5. On a baking sheet, spoon dough.
  6. Top with olive oil and remaining parsley and pat down lightly.
  7. Bake for 15-20 minutes.

Yields 9-10 biscuits, just enough for me to perform quality control.

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