Tag Archive: Bread


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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Of Bread and Biscuits: A Slice of Life

My apartment has betrayed me again.

Somehow, it always happens when you least expect it. Your environment reassures you that you are far from harm, then suddenly shifts one element just enough to throw off the balance. There are one too many potatoes in the pot now, just enough to make the soup splatter all over your immaculate stovetop. This shift could be anything, but mark my words, they always happen because of time.

Over the years, I have confronted the notoriously evil Valentine’s Day with viewpoints as numerous in the spices in my cabinet. I have tried to be sagacious about it, maintaining a woody indifference while nurturing hope in silence, the kind of hope that you can only taste once something has stewed for three-hundred sixty four days. As a child, I maintained a bland indifference, took it with a grain of salt. One year, I took a lesson from cinnamon and decided to sweeten things up with a bunch of my single friends. Mainly, I tend to spend the day over-beating myself until I’m too stiff to stand one mention of it. Although I am not qualified to participate in the festivities, I am reminded everywhere I turn that every single human being in a twenty-mile radius is planning on some grandiose gesture of love and affection to what’s-his/her-name. And why shouldn’t they? That is the purpose of Valentine’s Day according to modern America.

Now try being happy when you’re the coconut truffle in a box of cherry cordials. You are blatantly excluded from all their cordial games and banished to the land of the defective conversation hearts.

Of course, on the outside, I am my typical bubbly self. I gratefully accept conciliatory chocolates from janitors and friends. I even laugh as one of my students, single like me but from overseas, wishes me a Happy Valentine’s day in broken English that sounds like the hollow rap of conversation hearts being poured into a glass bowl.

Almond Chicken Ding

Aside from gin, this was my only friend.

Yesterday, I spent Valentine’s Day with a bowl of leftover Chinese take-out and a bottle of gin. I used the same bowl that has housed many leftover bowls of soup, and after taking two straight shots of a liquor that tastes like Christmas or like some uninhabited forest of pines. As always, I had the opportunity to do my drinking among company, but being more salt than sugar, and more orange pith than either, I thought it best to withdraw into the pages of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley for the evening.

I wanted nothing to do with soup.

Gin makes my clumsily penned handout sound perfect, and even when I get up in the morning to give it one more comb-over before the big presentation only to find that it is anything but perfect, I still appreciate the effort. Soup doesn’t have that kind of power. There could always be more salt, fewer noodles—the potatoes aren’t quite right and the flavor is off just enough for me to know.

Gin makes me forget about all of that.

With Gin, I sigh dragon’s fire after just one sip, and all is made right with the world.

Taking drinks of gin straight from the bottle and devouring a forlorn container of Almond Chicken Ding is a recipe for just one more night alone. The fiery liquor and the take-out make it feel more like an ordinary day despite the fact that I hardly indulge in either. At last, I am as still on the outside as I am on the inside, and both are covered in the mold that will inevitably accrue when one loafs around for too long. It’s a good thing I’m turning pages at a rate of 75 per hour. This motion, the way the text clings to my mind, the scratching of a pencil against the margin of every page… all these things keep me from becoming too stale. Without them, I would absorb too much light and water. A feathery mold would cling to me, delicately eating away at my skin until it reaches my acrid core and dies from the sheer gall of it.

I am a plant killer. My bamboo died this summer. This is why I rely on others to take care of growing the seasonings I use in my soup. No one savors the taste of blighted basil.

Perhaps that is why I shoved soup away on Valentine’s Day. Because even when I eat it alone, even when I swallow it half-chewed while working desperately on my thesis, soup is still a reminder of the inevitable connections I have with the world outside. In a course of study that isolates, soup sustains the body, the sole, and the strings that attach me to the outside world. Every bite is a memory of cooking with a friend or of the feeling that comes after eating the second serving that neither of you needed. It can’t be helped, though, because that soup is just too damn good to leave alone.

That feeling is misery, stewed in groans and laughter.

I’m planning to have a leftover bowl of chowder for dinner, so I opt for a sandwich for lunch. George Foreman will help me transform it into a Panini. I can almost taste it already.

The bread on the table beckons me. I am proud of this bread; I bought the pre-sliced multi-grain loaf for three dollars, never mind the tax. This bread is more than just a sandwich fixing. It shows how grains can work together to create something better than they are when apart. It shows that processing really takes the life out of them.

Chowder and Shirley

In all things, progress tastes of chowder.

I extract the only partly eaten loaf to find all of my hopes in vain. Unable to cling to me, the mold has instead settled on my otherwise in-tact loaf of bread. It still gives under the slight pressure of my hand and springs back instantly. I sigh and throw the loaf in the trash. It ends with a bang, and the cabinet door whimpers as I shut it out of mind.

I glance to the table and find that the biscuits I made two days ago have more than enough of me in them to scare the mold off.

Perhaps a bowl of soup would be nice after all.

I went to Panera Bread for the first time as a freshman in high school with a friend of mine and her mother in the days before I understood that restaurants would customize your order. When I first saw the menu, I had no idea what to buy. I hated mayonnaise with a passion (and still do with few exceptions), and practically every sandwich on the menu utilized one form or another as a condiment. Worse still, practically everything had tomatoes, a food that, in its raw form, is only just now becoming tolerable to me at the age of 24. I gave the menu one of my blankest looks, much like the one I would give my calculus text book three years later. I had been ordering for myself at restaurants for probably six or seven years at that point and cutting my own meat for a year longer, but thus far, I never had to make such a life-altering decision in my brief and sheltered existence.

“The broccoli cheddar soup here is really good,” my friend insisted.

I confess I was dubious. “The problem is I don’t really eat a lot of raw cheese, so I’m not really sure if I’d like a soup with a cheese base.” I associated any sort of “cream” soup with the milk and roux mixture we served at home. Chunks of potatoes or broccoli floated around in milk broth, but I canned up my complaints about the flavor to avoid offending the chef, whether that was my mom or my dad. Uttering one word of disdain was like cranking a pan full of spaghetti sauce on high and simply walking away from it: if I spawned more heat and threw off the equilibrium, the white stove top of a calm evening would look less like an appliance and more like a massacre. Of course, I only mean words, but as the only child, I tried to keep parental perturbation down to a minimum.

I wasn’t seeing any other solutions to the problem, and the menu wasn’t responding to my glances. “Get it in a bread bowl,” she suggested. “At least try it.”

Fortunately, this was before Panera became less restaurant and more madhouse. There were only a handful of customers already dining, and we were the only ones in line. It was about 11:30. Nowadays, there aren’t even any tables left at 11:30, and the line of diners stretches helter-skelter towards the door. I placed my order and got a glass of water to accompany my lunch.

If I had to choose one word to describe my first encounter with that soup, it would have to be euphoric. I became more attached to it, ordering the dish every time we visited the restaurant (until I discovered the Sierra Turkey sandwich; then, I began alternating between the two).

A few years ago, this friend added a little too much heat to my stable existence, and I simply rammed her into the back of my subconscious, relegating her to the bottom shelf and cutting all ties. The problem was that as we grew older, I aged like a barrel of wine: I was cumbersome and still had a very limited perception of the world, but my flavor was developing, changing, growing, and (hopefully) improving. I began to see the world through glass that was not rose-colored. I labored at a Pizza Hut, tolerating my menial minimum-wage job, disdaining my slacking coworkers, and at times wanting to toss a full vat of sauce on the customers. People were not all nice, and life was not easy. Conversely, she aged more like a Twinkie. As another only child, she lives in a smaller container than I do, a plastic wrapper where she sees the world not quite as it is but how she wants to. She was preserved by an abundance, and maybe an overabundance, of affection. I saw ugly sides of her that I will never share with anyone else, and those sides reminded me that unlike her, I had to earn my gas and spending money. She got sizable handouts of money from her parents regularly, but for me, every dime was a drop of sweat, every quarter a rock of the knife on the board, every dollar a spot of hot oil singeing my flesh and leaving small, white, dalmatian-spot scars.  She still appears in my dreams sometimes, usually as an antagonist, and when I wake up on mornings like that, I find myself wondering if she ever changed.

Although my relationship with this particular friend came to an abrupt end and I no longer frequent Panera, my bond to broccoli-cheddar soup grew infinitely stronger when I found this recipe and began making my own. I actually prefer my own broccoli-cheddar soup to Panera’s because the broccoli is chunkier and never overcooked.

Mount Pleasant is rumored to be getting a Panera Bread in the next six months. I jokingly tell people that the reason they don’t have one already is because I can make their broccoli-cheddar soup better than they can. It seems odd to me that Panera is just now coming here when I’m getting so close to leaving, so maybe there is some truth in this.

But it’s probably just a coincidence.

Chicken and Broccoli Cheddar Soup for the Sole

Ingredients

  • ¼ onion, diced
  • 4 baby carrots, diced
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 2 chicken tenderloins, frozen
  • 4 oz fresh broccoli, chopped
  • 2 tsp butter, separated into 1 tsp portions
  • 1 ½ tsp flour
  • 1 pint half and half
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • ½ tsp nutmeg

Directions

  1. In a three-quart sauce pan, melt 1 tsp butter. Add onions and cook until onions are caramelized.
  2. While onions are caramelizing, defrost chicken tenderloins in microwave for 3-4 minutes.
  3. Melt the remaining teaspoon of butter and mix with flour. Cook for 1-2 minutes until flour/butter mixture is pasty and golden.
  4. Add chicken stock to the pan and whisk until roux is fully dissolved. Add half and half. Lower heat to a simmer. Dice chicken and add to pan. Simmer for 5-10 minutes.
  5. Add carrots and celery. Simmer for an additional 15 minutes.
  6. Add broccoli. Simmer for another 15 minutes.
  7. Add sharp cheddar in ¼ or ⅓ cup batches. Whisk each batch until it is fully melted and combined with the cooking liquid.
  8. Add nutmeg and black pepper. Serve with crusty bread.

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A New Pan Shall Rise

The pan costs me less than lunch.

“You can’t go and buy one at WalMart,” Andreah insists for the third time, adding one of her characteristic “Ewwww!”s to further convince me that this is not the best idea I’ve ever had. We are eating at Los Aztecas, a local Mexican restaurant, and as usual, the food is delicious.

Yesterday, I explained my rationale for shopping at WalMart to Elvira, an exchange student from the Ukraine, as we were driving to the local organic food store. “I don’t advocate shopping there by any means because I’ve heard they mistreat their employees.” Andreah had worked there for three weeks as a cart pusher and was forced to work through her breaks. The company got caught a few years later, and she got a reimbursement check for about eighty dollars. “But,” I added, “I’m a broke college student. If and when I ever get a decent paying job one day, I’ll shop at better stores.” She tells me the bread is better in the Ukraine because they don’t process the flour so much. Later, at the coffee shop, she tells me about her Russian friends who bought a bread maker. A single bagel costs them about fifty cents to make. Someday, I will make my own bread. For the moment, I consider it an achievement that I’ve boycotted canned soup (but not canned stock, which just needs a little help. The overcooked starches and vegetables and the bits of unidentified meat the size of a pea and the texture of dog food are beyond the aid of every culinary wizard I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. This includes my father, who I have dubbed Iron Chef Michigan).

As the enchiladas verde begin to digest, I am hit with my mid-afternoon, overly full fatigue. I watch the thick layer of Michigan snow melt. “Just buy it at Target,” Andreah insists. I remind her that Starbucks is a bit of a corporate bastard, too. She tried it for the first time yesterday and agrees that Kaya, the local place, is better.  I’m not sure if my dad would agree with our opinions. He has been roasting his own coffee beans for almost three years now. I’m sure he thinks all coffee, excluding his own, tastes like motor oil.

When I leave the restaurant, I steer towards WalMart. Their parking lot looks like ten quarts of soup in a four-quart pot. It’s one in the afternoon on a Saturday, so I’m not shocked. I hastily navigate across the slush-covered asphalt and enter the doors. I nearly bump into a middle-aged woman with a full cart, weaving around and performing her own shopping tasks with little regard to the rest of us. I’m tempted to say, “So you’re the chicken in chicken noodle soup? Big deal. You’re not the only one in this pot, so move over and give the rest of us some room.” Instead, I weave between the aisles unhindered by a cart, and by the time she has arrived at the main aisle, I’ve already planted myself firmly in cookware.

I take one look at a two-quart sauce pan.

I’m definitely going to need something a little bigger. I inwardly chuckle at the strange reversal of circumstances, knowing that I usually fill my bowl a little to high at meal times. I don’t want to do the same with a pot. No… it needs to have a little extra room. Otherwise, it will be crowded like the aisles, and I won’t be able to move anything around without creating a fire hazard or crushing something. A three-quart pan would give me room to stir, so I peruse WalMart’s selection.

Double boiler and convertible sauce pan. Both would serve my purpose since both include a three-quart pan and lid as two of the pieces. Both are about twenty-five dollars out of my price range.

“Maybe there is something more,” I tell myself, navigating the aisles. I see Paula Deen cookware, which is even farther out of my price range. Small appliances, coffee and tea makers, and then the main aisle. As I walk, my thoughts are stewing. I could afford a thirty-dollar pan, right? But it seems foolish to spend that much when I bought my eight-quart stainless steel pot for six dollars. I go back to the aisle and stare at my options for a moment longer, then get stepped on by a polite gentleman whose wife attempted to warn him. He apologizes jovially. I smile. “It’s alright. I wasn’t paying attention, either.” And I wasn’t. I was thinking about how I should have just gone to Target in the first place.

The aisles were more placid. I only passed a young couple with an infant girl.

Target apparently divides its cookware by affordability. One aisle is devoted to pans within the budget of a graduate assistant. The other is for people who do not have degrees in English. I look through both and am drawn to a gem of a pot, a 3.2-quart aluminum pan whose cost deters me. “You are not the one,” I say. Neither are any of the ones in aisle two of cookware, whose prices mock my scant budget. I return to the cost-effective pan aisle, studying my possibilities thoroughly. After all, this pan is going to be my sous chef for the next fourteen weeks. I need it to be qualified for the job. I line them up for a group interview.

“How do you handle yourself when someone lights a fire under your ass?”

“I’m… sorry?” one of the candidates stammer.

“I mean how hot does it make you? Does the oil start to smoke within two minutes, or do you take longer to warm up to the idea of being under pressure?”

They’re made of metal, but they can’t even handle the heat.

“What is your philosophy on spices? Should they be measured before being added?” I demand next.

“Never! Just dump them right in from the canister!”

“Always! With Paula Deen brand measuring spoons for added class! Only $9.99!”

There are only two ways I measure spices: by sight and by taste. Palm and eye, then stir and try. If it tastes like enough, then it’s enough. I’m not a cooking chemist; I’m more like an alchemist, transforming canned broth into a pot of gold.

Things finally begin to pan out when I remove a three-quart sauce pan by Faberware from its place on the wall. The nonstick grip feels sturdy and reliable. The weight is just right. The glass lid is topped by a knob that seems to be made for my short fingers and broad palms. I take the lucky pan to the book section under pretense of thinking about it, but I’ve already made up my mind. It is the only one of its brethren left in the store, one of a batch of countless identical twins. Much like me, this pan is a loner.

I have little choice over the gas stove in my one-bedroom apartment, but as for my crucible… this is it. Lunch fed me for an hour. This pan will feed me for a long time.

My lunch costs nine dollars with tip. My new sous chef only costs me six dollars and thirty-one cents after tax.