Food Hacking

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Facebook and Instagram friends have been subjected to my month of bread baking. In a previous post, I mentioned that I’d been making all sorts of dough-based foods, from bagels to naan to boules.

So it’s probably a surprise that I’m not a confident cook. When I was young, in fourth or fifth grade, I was really into cooking and quite good at it. My mum loves to cook, and I’d follow along. She’s notorious for figuring out other people’s secret recipes then inviting them over and serving it to them. She’s a scientist and takes a scientific approach to deconstructing flavors, experimenting, and refining. Well, as long as it’s prepared on a stove, not in an oven! She’s a hilariously terrible baker given how good she is at everything else.

But in sixth grade, I decided I was a feminist and wouldn’t do stupid girly stuff, like cooking or crafting. (Hey, I was eleven, and my goal in life was to be Paula Abdul since she was a tap dancer like me. Or an astrophysicist. Preferably both.) Fast forward ten years to when I spent two months of grad school in Mexico City. Eating at taquerias was fine and great, but we only had a stove in the apartment, no microwave or oven, so buying prepared meals didn’t work, and I was stuck with endless rounds of pasta and variations on egg dishes. Afterward, I asked my mum to teach me how to cook. The problem? I like complicated food, so I wanted her to teach me things like kochuri (a Bengali fry bread that’s stuffed with peas that takes several hours to make) and matar paneer (also good but the paneer should be made a day in advance). So I learned how to cook and immediately stopped doing it except for parties — then I’d have 2-3 days of epic food preparation.

Somewhere along the way, within the past four or five years, I got into baking. I liked that the recipes were precise, I could follow them exactly, and whatever I made would turn out. It felt scientific, with all of the measuring and mixing, and best of all, the dishes cooked themselves. I hadn’t developed any sort of food intuition, after all. Andrew, on the other hand, has always had food sense. He makes things up, which has always astonished me. I could make desserts and could still do the really complex party foods, so we had our roles: he prepared the fast, daily meals, and I made the “special” food.

Enter Jeff and Wayne. Jeff is a good friend and programmer who wrote Cooking for Geeks, and Wayne is another good friend who left programming to become a chef (he was the executive sous chef at one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants) and who more recently started Lonestar Taco with his wife, Tracie, a friend from college. They changed the way I understand food. Jeff’s book explains how food works — how to blend flavors, why food is cooked at certain temperatures, how protein structures change and how that affects flavor and feel. Wayne has all of that in his head, and both love to share their love of food by cooking for people and encouraging them to do it themselves. They take a hacker’s approach to cooking, and somehow, following their paths, I caught the spirit.

I’m still not like Andrew, Jeff, and Wayne — able to look in the fridge and assemble something that will work. But I can finally take a recipe as a base and modify and debug it, and I feel far less self-conscious about total failures.

We hosted brunch on Saturday and made a meal of foods impossible to find in Lausanne. We’d promised homemade bagels but found ancho peppers and queso fresco and decided that even if they didn’t go together, we’d have both bagels and enchiladas. The night before, Andrew worked on an ancho sauce (his first, and it was absolutely delicious, even though we only had about two of the right ingredients and he made up the rest), and I had planned to make tortillas and pumpkin chocolate chip bars. The tortillas completely failed. I was attempting corn tortillas for the first time, and they were sticky, wouldn’t press, and fell apart, and tasted grainy and terrible. We’d finished all of the flour tortilla mix that I’d gotten from Tracie & Wayne at Christmas, so I found their tortilla recipe online and did some math to adapt Wayne’s mix to the types of flour that I had (matching gluten levels and adjusting hydration for European flour). They turned out.

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I mentioned pumpkin doughnut holes to Andrew in passing, and his eyes lit up, so I checked ingredients to see if I could make those instead of the pumpkin chocolate chip cookie bar I’d planned to bake. I didn’t have pumpkin pie spice, but I did have cloves, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, so I whipped up a batch, and of course we can’t buy brown sugar here, but I had molasses and sugar, so I made that, too, and the doughnut holes happened. A year ago, I wouldn’t have known how to do that, despite the simplicity.

My real coups over the past two weeks though? First, my yeast culture has been super happy. I even split it and gave a batch to a friend here who loves to bake (he taught us how to make strudel and brought an amazing sachertorte to brunch! *diesofchocolate*).

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The happy levain means I was able to try my first sourdough bread, a pain rustique — it requires French stretch and fold methods instead of regular kneading, and the dough is pretty wet, so it’s challenging to handle. This was my first attempt at French bread methods, and it worked:

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I even got some of the nice big holes that sourdough should have:

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I also tried to make pretzels for the first time, and of course I decided to make sourdough beer pretzels. They were tasty and I’d make them again, but they weren’t exactly what I wanted, so I need to experiment some more… maybe try a different type of flour.

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And finally, I made the unassuming yet complex baguette boule. This one was involved. You start with something that’s halfway between a biga and poolish (a pre-ferment that’s wetter than the Italian biga but not as wet as a traditional French poolish), let it sit out for an hour, and then refrigerate over night. In the morning, you create the real dough and then develop it using French stretch and fold methods every 45 minutes until the dough forms.

This one is tough because for the first few sets of folds, the dough doesn’t look or feel right, so you just have to trust it and keep going and keep handling the really wet dough (75% hydration) gently but with confidence. This dough isn’t supposed to be kneaded at all, so the process is relatively delicate while the dough is difficult.

And since that wasn’t complicated enough, in my (now) typical hacks, I swapped the type of yeast, changed the rise time accordingly, and adjusted the cooking and baking time to fit my oven based on a previous near failure. I was delighted that the result actually tasted like a baguette, although it’s shaped for sandwiches (the mismatch between look and taste threw me off at first), and I was very excited to get a complicated bread to work, especially since I made my first (flat and not very pretty) boule 4 weeks ago! Here is the baguette boule:

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As a note, I use Pinterest to clip recipes I’d like to try. Most are simple and quick, my attempt to find fast but tasty meals so that I develop my repertoire beyond marathon cooking sessions. Many of the dough recipes are pinned to my food board.

What are some of your favorites?

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