Give us today

The first bread I remember well was a huge round white Italian loaf that came in a paper bag and was bought at the Ainslie shops in Canberra, the city where I was born.

On my fourteenth birthday, mum took me to Canberra for a shopping trip and we stayed in a little hotel and I spent all morning toasting slices of bread and eating them with sliced ham.

Yesterday, I needed to make some breadcrumbs for a chicken parmigiana I was making for a catering gig with a local fly fishing outfitter [Kootenai Canyon Anglers]

Good bread like that crusty Italian loaf has been hard to come by in Troy, Montana until recently, with several local bakers at the farmers market now selling excellent loaves.

But the market is only on Fridays, so I went to the store and stared for a while, trying not to breathe in the sweet chemically smell of the bread aisle.

A sea of soft white and brown bread looked back at me, bread I knew would turn to a gummy paste in the food processor.

I needed a dry, open-crumbed bread – the type of bread for which breaded foods were invented to use up, along with the classic old bread dishes like Panzanella, Fattoush, bread pudding and that Spanish soup with bread and almonds.

There’s a casual assumption that such bread can be found in the US – a food mag I subscribe to, Bon Appetit, often ends a recipe with “serve with crusty bread,” as though such a thing is easy to find.

But crusty bread is harder to find than other hard-to-find ingredients. Sumac, leaf gelatin, nigella seeds and Korean chilli can be ordered online, while fresh bread is a purely local delicacy.

Recent trips to Denver, Colorado and Seattle, Washington showed me that finding good bread is not a rural problem.

At the farmer’s market in Arvada, Denver, there were superb fresh peaches and melons whose stems were still dripping from where they had been pulled from the vine. But I knew at first glance that the bakery stall was baking quick yeasted bread – puffy oversized croissants with no visible layers and fat white “French” loaves prevailed.

Trips to two huge supermarkets and a natural grocer also yielded zero loaves of crusty bread, and we were content with an organic, seeded loaf which somehow still had the same texture as soft white bread.

[If you can, support your local bakery or farmers market baker instead of buying supermarket bread – you’ll avoid the chemicals which mean bread can have a best by date three weeks in the future]

Apparently, Christopher Columbus brought sourdough culture [a tangy, tasty wild yeast used exclusively before commercial yeasts overtook] with him on the boat in 1492 – but the American bread situation has gone steadily downhill since then, to arrive at this:

hot dog

What makes Americans so fond of pappy white bread? is it a history of dental problems that make chewing a crust too difficult? a love of commercialisation? or is it just that when Columbus’ sourdough was abandoned, people forgot what good bread tastes like and they’ve never remembered?

It’s ironic that there is at face value so much choice around bread in this country. Visit any diner and order a breakfast plate and the waitress will drill you with options for your accompanying toast:

“We have wheat, white, sourdough, English muffins, bagels, rye, marbled rye …”

But the bread all tastes the same [except when there is a caraway involved].

Rye bread often has a tiny percentage of actual rye flour, and is not even made brown with the traditional sweetener – molasses – but is coloured with caramel dye.

Of course, there is a time and a place for pappy white bread. Soft white bread is popular in Australia too – and sometimes it’s the best bread for the job, as it is in the case of fairy bread [an Australian tradition for birthday parties – heavily buttered white bread covered with sprinkles and cut into triangles].

At home in Australia, at our monthly market in Candelo,  the primary school still sells fat sausages on a stick and hamburgers with grilled onions, sliced tomato and shredded iceberg lettuce sandwiched between buttered white bread, which they’ve done since the early eighties.

No other bread would do for the price, and I still think about how my teeth made drag marks in the thin white bread.

When we first lived the USA, Haakon used to make bread for us – a quick, yeasted half white-half wheat [wholemeal, in Australia] everyday bread that filled the hole and was infinitely better than anything you could get at the store.

I sometimes rolled the loaves in sesame seeds before they baked to add a crunchy coating.

When we ran out, or I was alone for awhile, I bought sourdough English muffins to eat with my breakfast egg. They were white and slightly sour tasting, but not actually sourdough – just another soft, white bread.

I’d toast them to the point of burning, seeking a bit of crunch and chew.

Around that same time, I started playing with a no-knead bread recipe, which relies on an overnight ferment, wet dough and extremely hot bake in a dutch oven to achieve a thick brown crust and nice air pockets.

I found making the recipe for one loaf tiresome, but I took some of the methods of making no-knead bread and applied them to Haak’s yeast bread recipe. I would make the dough very wet, add just a half teaspoon of yeast, and let it sit as long as I wanted – a long, slow ferment made for complex flavour without having to tend to a culture in the fridge.

This method works well for pizza dough and other flatbreads too – just make the dough and let it sit, either at room temperature for a few days, or in the fridge for up to a week.

But without the steam from a lidded dutch oven, achieving a crust was impossible, even when I used a steam bath [a tray of hot water in the oven while the bread bakes, used when making crusty bread like bagettes].

In my quest for breadcrumbs yesterday, I found a plastic bag with something small and hard in it – the end of a good, crusty loaf from my friend Madeline’s Farmer’s Market stall – but it was powdery and blue.

And then! another bag. Another partial loaf. And this one smells as it should: of wheat, salt and sour.

After my catering dinner is made and delivered, the kids are in bed and it’s finally dark, I salvage what’s left of Madeline’s bread and toast it to eat with a slice of leftover prosciutto.

Amazing.

 

 

 

 

 

*** You can find Madeline with Mads Breads and other artisan bakers at the Troy, Montana Farmer’s Market on Fridays between 3:30-6:30 ***

 

 

 

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The glut – morel season

 

One of the things that blows my mind about this part of the world – north-west Montana – is how much food people forage, hunt and preserve.

Australia has wild food too, enough to sustain indigenous people for 60,000 years, but aside from the obvious – seafood and game meat [yes, kangaroo!] – bush food is more subtle than the dripping berry bushes we see here in the summer.

Or maybe bush food is just less in line with modern tastes, so fewer people utilize it.

We went mushroom picking yesterday, and this morning I woke up to the funky, sweet smell of morel mushrooms drying in the dehydrator.

Morels are wild mushrooms that appear mostly in low-intensity fire sites in the spring. I’d never done any serious mushroom picking until yesterday, and my only experience with morels was that some friends gave us some dried morels a few years ago.

Because we had them, I threw a handful in a soup or stew every now and again, not really believing that the grey, dry, unscented pieces of mushroom would contribute anything to the dish.

It took me quite a few stews to realize that the elusive funky flavour was the dried morels.

I don’t actually like the smell of drying morels. It’s pretty cloying. But morels are like fish sauce, or dried shrimp – when I smell them cooking, it’s not good – but the flavour in a finished dish is somehow different, and welcome.

Knowing that it’s not unusual for people to find fields of morels, and come back with gallons of mushrooms, we took plenty of bags, and set off into some dense burn area alongside a creek and beside a logging unit.

Our kids are 3 and 6 now and can hike a few miles, and we also had my mum with us, visiting from Australia.

mum 2

Our area had some widespread wildfire last year, and the Forest Service opened up parts of the burn area to commercial mushroom pickers, so most of the burnt forest had already been canvassed – we could see clusters of hollow white morel stems under trees, cut with a knife.

No wonder the pickers had picked it over – morels are hard, if not impossible, to cultivate, so wild, foraged mushrooms are the bulk of the market, and fresh morels sell for anything between $50 to $150 a pound.

We traipsed on, over fallen, charred trees. The ground, burnt so hard, was down to clay, and after spring rainstorms, was very slippery [In Montana, we would say “slick”].

And then we found one small morel and another. The further from the road we got, the more we found, and the closer we looked, the more we stopped, the more we could spot them, the caps disguised as pinecones.

 

I was actually relieved we didn’t come into a glut of mushrooms, but rather, one or three here and there – this year, we are heading back to Australia in September, just before the major harvest/preserving/hunting season begins, and I’m being careful to whittle away at our food supplies, not build them up.

But it feels strange to go against the grain of the season – to harvest the glut, and put it away to provide a small comfort in February when nothing grows, and it seems like nothing ever will again.

I guess the morel of the story is, use what’s right in front of you.

I know that when we go back to Australia, Haak and I will apply for the permit to kill and eat a kangaroo on my parent’s property, and when mango season comes around, I’ll buy a flat and freeze the cheeks to use in smoothies later.

There is still so much I have to learn about living in my own country and climate, but what I’ve learnt in Montana about freezing, drying, fermenting and canning food has made me see a glut as more than overwhelming – to see it as an opportunity, not to be wasted.

And I’ll be on hand for morel support for any Aussies who want to work the glut more, although we’re spoilt in having a continuous season – fresh lemons and greens in mid-winter!

***I just could not stop myself on the morel puns***

 

 

 

 

 

Farmer’s market Croissants

A few weeks ago, I made croissants for the Troy Mother’s Day farmer’s market, and I’ve had so many requests for the recipe, I thought I’d jot it down here. Croissants have a reputation of being complicated to make, but I don’t think they are, just time consuming. I hope you’ll try them, because it’s so satisfying to make this French bakery staple at home, and if you, like me, live very, very far away from the nearest good bakery, sometimes you must take matters into your own hands!

***Allow five hours for initial prep of the dough, 8-18 hours resting time and another two hours to roll, form, rise and bake the rolls. Most of this time is inactive. I usually start the process in the early afternoon, rest the dough overnight and get up and bake in the morning. ***

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk, heated to warm
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 3 3/4 to 4 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 3 sticks (1 1/2 cups) cold unsalted butter [I use salted sometimes too, and cut the salt down to about a teaspoon]
  • 1-2 eggs, beaten, for egg wash

This recipe makes about 20-25 croissants.

First, make the dough. Dissolve the sugar in the warm milk, then add yeast, stir, and let sit until it starts to foam. Add the flour and salt and knead until you have a soft, sticky dough. You can use extra flour to make kneading easier if your dough is very sticky.

Form the dough into a rough rectangle and pop it in a plastic bag in the fridge until very cold, about one hour.

When your dough is close to being chilled, begin to prepare your butter. I find the easiest way is to take the three sticks of butter and cut them in half horizontally, then line them up next to each other on a cutting board to make a rectangle.

Now make the butter into one thin, uniform piece as much as possible, by pounding with a rolling pin, so it can more easily incorporate into the dough.

pound

Take the dough out of the fridge and roll it out. It will spring back and “fight’ you. Let it sit for minute to relax if you want, or just keep rolling until you have a long, thin rectangle of dough.

roll

Scrape the butter off the cutting board in one piece and place it in the middle of your strip of dough.

crop

 

Then fold both ends of the dough over the butter to make an envelope shape [the process is only half done in the picture]:

fold

Roll out thinly, and fold again the same way and put the dough back in the fridge for an hour.

It’s a lot of rolling. Bakeries have rolling machines that can make the dough much thinner than we can by hand.

In the pictures [taken by the lovely Madeline – thank you] I had just gotten home from yoga, and with the amount of rolling you will be doing, you might want to limber up and get some exercise wear on as well. I call it the French housewife workout, and it’s a nice way to offset all the croissants you will be eating later!

roll 2

Then wrap the rough rectangle of dough tightly in a plastic bag or plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for 8-18 hours.

When you are ready to bake, take the dough out and roll it, as thinly as you can, into a long rectangle. It might take some time and wrestling to get it as thin as possible and you may have to re roll as you go as the dough springs back.

Cut your first croissant. You want to make as many long, thin, wide based triangles as you can from the dough.

Stretching the dough as you work, start to roll from the wide base of the triangle to make a croissant shape. [I don’t have pictures of this stage, but here are the finished, unbaked rolls]

raw

 

Pre heat your oven to 350F/180C and let the croissants rise in a warm place for about half an hour, then brush them with egg wash and bake for about 20 minutes, until golden brown and well risen.

baked

Yum! enjoy. My croissants are never as even as commercial ones, and sometimes they un furl in the oven and look more like snails, but despite their looks, the first warm, crunchy bite always takes me back to an early morning in a little village bakery near Lyon, France, where I ordered croissants and ate them all before I got back to the house.

Because of their high fat content, croissants freeze and re heat beautifully, so pop any leftovers in a bag in the freezer, and thaw at room temp for 10-15 mins before cutting in half and toasting, or crisping in a hot oven for 10 mins.

Being a tea drinker in the US sucks

I just got back from a mother’s day tea party at Atticus’ kindergarten. It was adorable, and Atty”s kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Root, and her helper’s had laid out plastic table cloths and real cups and saucers for mom’s [I’m a M-o-m now, not a M-u-m, as I always expected], dixie cups of lemonade for the kids.

[An aside: Australian readers are thinking wait a second, her son’s teacher’s name is MRS ROOT? this would be the worst name for a teacher in Australia, because root is slang for sex. If you were being very crude [or funny] you would say to someone: wanna root?]

I was super impressed with the effort that Mrs Root had put into this party. She is an awesome teacher. But was I expecting to actually drink tea?

Absolutely not.

I have long ago adjusted my expectations around tea when we are in Montana.

Early on, I tried every brand of black tea I could find. I ordered it online, I bought it in bulk in fancy health food store’s. I don’t know what it is, but American tea just tastes bad to me.

I’m kind of mad about the Boston tea party, although still shady on the details, because I suspect we are still tasting the repercussions here in the US. We could be drinking great tea, like they have in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand: basically, all the western countries that didn’t chuck a bunch of tea in the sea.

I think that the countries that grow tea [India, Pakistan, Kenya, Turkey] give American tea suppliers all the dregs at the bottom of the tea chest – tiny specks of tea mixed with grass and sheep poop and other things that don’t taste like tea.

One of my closest friend’s here, Shawna, stopped drinking coffee last year. And when tea was her main vice she finally understood what I’d been complaining about all these years.

So I started slipping her some of my gift tea, sent from Australia. Mum is my main supply, but it’s become common knowledge for Australian’s visiting that a few packets of Aussie tea will always be welcome.

tea

Australian tea is strong, but somehow still sweet. Many people drink it with a bit of milk, some with a lot of sugar. Because it’s not as caffeinated as coffee, it’s served more often: when you go to someone’s house anytime of day, you’re often asked: wanna cuppa?

My cousin Lily always has a weak, milky cup of tea before bed. I love her sleepy dependence on the routine: even in the days we were out drinking together, she would come home and make tea at 2 am.

When I first had Atticus, and my friend Lulu had a baby at the same time, she said to me once, sleep deprived and frustrated with babies: “It was a five cups of tea day today for sure.”

Although I usually have just one cup, and thankfully my baby days are over, sometimes I still use Lulu’s measure. Hangover days. Jet lagged days. Days after everyone had a stomach bug all night.

One of Haakon’s cousin’s, Amanda, once took us to an amazing tea house in Boulder, Colorado. It was early in my time here, and I remember that cup of tea being very special, especially that I could ask for milk with the tea and be understood [American’s usually drink black tea black].

I remember the first time I was served my own cup of tea: I was about ten, and I was on holiday with my family, visiting some good friends of my parents who were staying at Scott’s Head in northern NSW.

It was late [for me] and dark and a salty warm wind blew off the ocean. My friend, Meredith, the daughter of mum and Dad’s friend’s, and I were given warm, milky cups of tea and what seemed like a generous amount of scotch finger biscuit’s for dunking.

We took our treats to the upper deck of the rental, looking out into the darkness where we could just barely see white waves rolling in; but we could hear the roar.

The wind blew, and I remember getting kind of crazy, jumping and holding our arms out. Was it the tea? the lateness of the hour? the thrill of feeling like adults?

Whatever it was, addiction set in, and tea stills feels like home. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up: put the kettle on, drink tea with milk.

Back in the kindergarten classroom, Tracy [a teacher’s aide] came around with an ornate tea pot: but what would be in it?

Turns out, tea.

And really tasty tea. Some kind of lightly sweet, iced tea with an earl grey flavor.

And Atticus asked me for a sip. So I gave him one.

Atty

 

 

 

 

Food memories

My mum is quietly obsessed with food. Mostly just the having of it, not particularly the quality, although she is also an artist of simple, amazing home cooking.

I often got home from school and found soup on the wood stove, red from her tomatoes with tiny cut up pieces of sweet carrot and zucchini and round slivers of leek.

Mum’s obsession stems at least partly from her mothers’ experience of food shortages during the second world war in the Netherlands. That anxiety about food has traveled through generations, morphing along the way.

Now it’s something we give her shit about because she always remembers events based on what we ate. She’ll say to dad: “remember, I made the lamb roast and Sandy made the cheesecake,” or “no, it wasn’t that weekend, it was the trip we took when we stopped at the fish and chip place and you had steak,” and he will smile at her blankly.

I have my own host of food memories, not just from childhood, but from the process of coming into myself as a cook.

I’m grateful to all those who cooked for me and with me and made me slowly aware of the power of being able to create good food first for myself [thin salty slivers of toasted sourdough bread with sesame seeds topped with pools of melting butter and chunks of avocado] and then for others.

There were hits, and there were definitely misses. I remember passing bowls of melting vanilla ice cream and stringy, overcooked rhubarb at midnight after the kind of house party where everyone sits around on the carpet drinking beer out of bottles and loudly taking politics.

I ate my first pomegranate around the same era while chatting to a friend on the phone for hours. When I stood up, I saw the white wall around my head was splattered with blood-red juice.

The kidney beans I did not soak, which I later threw up [kidney beans are mildly poisonous until properly cooked]. The dear friend who kindly requested I cut the onions finer for the pea risotto.

The discovery of salt and olive oil glugged in quantity over pumpkin for roasting when I lived in Melbourne and had access to cheap bulk oil.

When I was twelve, a friend’s dad took us out to lunch in Canberra and we had laksa – it was so, so fiery hot to my palate and I loved every painful slurp.

There is so much still to discover and learn. Now, in early spring, I’m watching the first tips of white asparagus emerge from the soil in my first ever asparagus bed. I know the spears will be so sweet we’ll eat them raw at first.

DSCF3297

I’m longing to eat from my garden – tiny Lebanese cucumbers tossed with cherry tomatoes, basil, oil, red onion and feta in a quasi Greek salad. After a long winter of cabbage and bitter store bought carrots, it will taste even more amazing!

I spend a lot of time making food and growing food for our family – I want my kids to be passionate about food and able to make themselves good food.

Last night I was calmly making dinner [crispy roast potatoes, salad and three rainbow trout Atticus had caught on the weekend] and suddenly the floor was alive with wet, fighting, screaming children, straight out of the bath.

As I flung wet towels and children out of my way, I thought but did not say:

“Get out of my kitchen, you fuckers! I’m making you food memories.”