Nifty Thrifty

Shortly after we got married, I started on a mission to de-waste our house, to be more frugal and to stop spending money on things I could just make myself.  I think at first, my husband thought it was endearing.  And while I’m sure he still finds it a respectable challenge, sometimes I think he wishes I would just buy the product and stop tearing the kitchen apart trying to reproduce something.  You see, for the last 3 and a half years, I have been trying to make homemade crackers.   Not just any homemade cracker, though.  I wanted something as crisp and salty as the wheat thin, but without the packaging, preservative and expense.  I’ve tried a number of recipes and finally, through some tweaking, came up with this one.

Wheat crackers

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup wheat germ
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp. salt, plus more to sprinkle on top
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 stick of butter, cut into 1/2 Tablespoon pieces

Pre heat your oven to 400 degrees.  Place all ingredients, except the water in a food processor and blend until the butter is fully incorporated.  Stream in the water until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the processor as it spins around.  Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and finish kneading it by hand until the dough is smooth and there are no lumps of butter showing.   Divide the dough into 4 pieces and work with them one at a time.  Work quickly, though, because the dough dries out if you let it sit for too long.  Roll the dough out until it is about 1/16 of an inch thick.  Then, with a pizza cutter or a knife, cut the dough into 1-inch square pieces.  Transfer the dough pieces to a lined baking sheet and bake for 5-7 minutes.

I rolled out the dough and made the general size cuts.  Then, I only put the crackers that were in the right shape on the tray, rolled up the rest and repeated the process.  The ones that never made it into the right shape were the first to be sampled.  The whole process took less than 15 minutes until i was munching on these amazing crackers!  Even 7-month-old Liam thought they were amazing.  I am pleased with the taste and consistency.  You have to make sure you roll the dough out thinly enough, but if you do, you will have the perfect crispness.  

As far as the thrifty aspect, the last time I checked, Wheat thins were $3.47 a box.  I bought butter for $2.38 a pound.  I can get 4 recipes of my wheat crackers out of a pound of butter.  Each recipe produces enough to fill my canister. (This canister also holds a little over one box of Wheat thins.)  So for the cost of the butter alone, I am getting a comparable amount of crackers for 60 cents and 15 minutes of my time.   No bad, if I do say so myself.  It took far longer than I thought it would, but I’ve finally reached a solution for this snack conundrum.  Next up: pretzels!  This week, I am going to also post about how we grocery shop and menu plan since I have gotten a few personal emails/phone calls regarding this.  Perhaps I can be of help to someone else!

French Yogurt Cake

 An indulgently healthy sweet: French Yogurt Cake

When I first made out my list, I wanted to include some variations for traditional desserts.  To be honest, I didn’t really come up too many because when it came right down to it, I like the tradition.  However, when I discovered the recipe for a yogurt cake, I knew this was something I needed to add to my repertoire.  As I mentioned in my last post, butter has been a hot commodity in my kitchen with all the snow and my greatly decreased desire to head out to the grocery.  Again this weekend, I baked away the snowstorm induced chill in the house from the Freeze Your Buns Off challenge in an effort to combat the lower temperatures outside of the main rooms of the house. 

This is a wonderful Christmas morning treat as well… the pug was quite covetous.

I am a big fan of the pound cake.  In fact, my favorite is a lemon cream-cheese one that I make for most occasions where a sweet bread is appropriate.  This weekend was one of those occasions.  Somehow, though, I managed to mess up the batter.  I don’t actually know what I did for sure, but I’m pretty certain I missed half a cup of flour.  Regardless, I had to bake it 30 minutes longer than prescribed and the resulting cake was something I would never allow out of my kitchen.  I then decided that the yogurt cake would be a simple fix.  In this recipe, plain yogurt takes the place of the butter so while you have a baked good with the consistency of a pound cake, it is lower in fat and as an added bonus, you’ve also gotten something to chat about with your guests.  I adapted this recipe somewhat from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking book, but not too much, she is a genius after all.  

French Yogurt Cake

  • 1 1/4 cups flour
  • 1/4 cup finely ground wheat germ
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • 1/2 tsp. lemon extract
  • 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup canola oil

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and butter a loaf pan liberally.  Combine your dry ingredients.  In a large bowl, cream together the yogurt and the eggs, one at a time.  When it is thoroughly blended, add in the lemon extract and juice.  Mix in half of the dry ingredients.  Stream in the oil while the dry ingredients are being mixed.  Once all the oil is mixed in, add the last of the dry ingredients and mix until combined.  Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake for 50-55 minutes.  

**Dorie calls for a glaze to be poured over the top of the cake, but I don’t like it that way.  I prefer it with a thin schmere of cream cheese and a cup of coffee.  Those I have served it to, agree.**

Resources: Baking: From My Home to Yours

Oatmeal Cranberry Cookies

I love cranberries.  Everything about them makes me happy, the color, the tang, the size.  I just think they are the greatest little products of any bog you could come up with!   When I discovered the dried cranberry a few years ago, it was as though the heavens opened and angels sang.  I love cranberries so much that I’m ashamed to admit that if you were to visit my Farmville farm you’d note that I plant them almost everyday.  Lots and lots of cranberries.  

 Mom’s worn cookie book she got in girl scouts.  Every cookie she made was from this book.

Now, I know I said I wanted to master the Oatmeal cookie on my list, but I just didn’t want to make them with the ubiquitous raisins.  Everyone does that.  Last weekend, I wanted cookies.  I didn’t so much want chocolate or peanut butter, but something that was baked with brown sugar.  I don’t know why, but I like the way brown sugar creates a different crunch in it’s baked goods than your run-of-the-mill white sugar.  While rooting around in my cupboards, I discovered some dried cranberries and knew just what to do.  Gleefully, I started pulling together my ingredients until I realized that we were in the middle of a snow storm and I didn’t have any butter.  Well, shoot.  I turned to all my cookie recipes to find none with any suggestions.  That is until I pulled out my mother’s Cookie Book.  In a section dedicated to special diets, I noticed that they substituted butter for oil a few times.  So I started playing.  Below is the recipe that resulted.  It only makes about 18 cookies, but they are a healthy size, so you only need to eat one.  But you’ll probably want more.  I do.  Perhaps, this is what I should do during naptime today…

Oatmeal Cranberry Cookies

  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees and line 2 baking sheets with silpats.  Beat together the wet ingredients and then sift in the dry ingredients.  Stir in the cranberries.  Drop about 2 Tablespoons of dough on the cookie sheets, leaving about 2 inches of space between the drops.  Bake about 15 minutes, makes 1 1/2 dozen cookies.

Pip Pip Cheerio!

May I begin this post by stating that I have never understood the allure of an English Muffin?  I’m fairly certain that it’s due to the fact that I once ate a McMuffin.  I think that’s it.  Or the fact that the people I know consider them appropriate for a low-carb diet.  To me, an English Muffin is dense, small and almost stale.  

Despite my negative perception of the baked good, I added it to my list and proceeded to look into it’s history.  Turns out, it’s fairly simple.  And also no longer popular in England.  However, it was in the 19th century when Jane Austen was writing Persuasion.  So popular that it actually garnered a mentioning!  Muffins were the staple of “common folk” during the 17th and 18th centuries, but grew in popularity as tea time became more of a meal than a treat.  During this time, the muffin man arose to conquer the British market.  Yes, I said the muffin man.  The very one of nursery rhyme fame.  The nursery rhyme that my husband used to sing to our very colicky son not so many months ago.  Perhaps that was the reason why I had to learn to make these muffins.  And today I discovered a few things: 

  1. English muffins are actually a yeasted bread, not leavened with baking soda as I had thought.
  2. They are quick cooking and very easy to make.
  3. They are not, in fact, stale.

The recipe is fairly simple: 10 ounces flour, 0.25 ounce sugar, 0.19 ounce salt, 0.14 ounce yeast,  0.5 ounce room temperature butter, 6-8 ounces water (and some cornmeal for dusting).  Mix together all the dry ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer fitting with a dough hook.  Add the butter and 6 ounces of water and mix until the dough forms a ball.  I wound up using all 8 ounces since my dough was rather dry.  Once the ball of dough has formed, mix it on medium speed for 8 minutes.  (*You will need to supervise the dough as it tends to stick to the bowl in places and not get a proper kneading.  Keep some flour on hand to dust the dough with periodically*).  When the kneading is complete, remove the dough from the bowl, lightly oil it and form the dough into a neat ball.  Return the dough to the bowl and cover it with a towel.  Allow the dough 60-90 minutes to rise in order for it to double in size.  (My house wasn’t too warm today, so it took the full 90 minutes.)  

On a clean, lightly floured counter, divide the dough into 6 pieces each weighing 3 ounces.  Form the pieces into a boule and set on a silpat-lined  baking sheet about 2 or 3 inches apart.  Cover again with a towel and allow for an additional 60-90 minutes of rising.  Each muffin should rise upwards and in width during this time.  

Heat a skillet to medium and your oven to 350 degrees.  Lightly grease the entire skillet.  Dust each side of the muffins with cornmeal (I omitted this step and found that I really do like them better this way).  Place each muffin into the skillet, leaving about an inch space between them.  The muffins will begin to flatten out and spread a bit.  Cook for about 5 minutes on each side, checking to make sure they aren’t burning.  When the muffins have been cooked on both side, place them on you baking sheet and put them in the oven for 8 minutes.  Return to any muffins that didn’t make it in the pan turning your first turn and finish them in the same manner.  Allow the muffins to cool for at least 30 minutes before you attempt slicing them.  

I served these with Hollandaise sauce (which I will write about later), poached eggs and sauteed peppers and onions.  They were wonderful.  A nice change from bread and something handy to have in my baking arsenal.  I’m still not completely won over, but I am warming to them.  Perhaps as a sandwich they might finally impress me.  The hubs, he’s already been won over, though.

Resources: The Bread Baker’s Apprentice

The treasure of the 1889 Paris World’s Fair

 Homemade croissants deserve Great=Grandma’s china!
I have a soft spot for pastries made with butter.  I love the way they make such a tender, flaky crumb.  I crave the faint sweetness in the dough.  I cherish the way they melt in your mouth.   And of all the butter pastries, I would certainly say the ubiquitous croissant is my favorite.  I’ve tried them both from a tube and on the streets in Amsterdam.  Obviously, those bought from an elderly woman while on an extended lay-over far outshine those from the grocery freezer case, but I have been held captive for years in fear of making them myself in my own kitchen.  I am not a culinary genius and have never had any formal training.  Therefore, I could not possibly be able to make them myself.  This is the kind of self talk that has been going on for years.  However, this soft spot has slowly worked it’s way out of my heart and into my brain.  Last weekend, I was seized with the desire to not only attempt, but master the croissant.  My personal affection for the pastry is slightly overshadowed by my new-found appreciation of the art.  I will forever be grateful to those Viennese bakers who brought the first croissants to the Paris World’s Fair in 1889.  I can only imagine the response the first time someone bit into the flaky bread.  I imagine those Victorian women fluttering about with their lace gloves stunned by yet another treasure from this tiny country.  As grateful as I am to the original baker, I am even more in debt to the Parisian who decided that the simple yeasted dough would benefit with the addition of butter.  Monsieur, vous est merveilleux!

Being an academic type, I laid out all my cookbooks with croissant references and recipes on Friday night.  I cross referenced until I felt well prepared.  Preparation really is half the battle.  I was less  concerned about my undertaking, but still slightly over whelmed as I began.  With great anxiety, I began the sponge.  I heated 2 cups of milk in a 2-quart pan until my candy thermometer registered 112 degrees (the recipe said between 110 and 115).  Then I added in 1 Tablespoon of sugar, stirred it briefly and sprinkled 1 Tablespoon of yeast over the top.  I covered the pot and let the mixture stand for 5 minutes while I paced around the kitchen.  At the end of the time, I gave it a quick stir with a fork, noting that it was beginning to smell rather yeasty and recovered the pan to wait an additional 5 minutes.  Once that time was up, the yeast had turned the milk into a bubbly, creamy mixture.  With a small whisk, I added in 1 cup of flour and stirred until it was well combined.  Once again, the pan was covered and I set the timer for 30 minutes while I gave my little boy a bath and then prepared the butter.

The completed sponge.

On cold surface (I used a ceramic pastry board), I sprinkled about a tablespoon of flour.  I laid 4 sticks of slightly softened butter side by side, covered them with an additional tablespoon of flour and began rolling them out.  I had to repeatedly cover the butter and my rolling pin with flour until the butter measured about 8 inches square.  Once the desired size was acheived, I transferred the butter to a cookie sheet, covered it with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge to chill.  Little did I know, but the worst part was officially over.

Mixing in action.

In the bowl of my stand mixer, I put 4 cups of flour, 1/3 cup of sugar and 2 tablespoons of very soft butter.  I gave it a brief mix on low speed for about 30 seconds.  Then, with the mixer off, I added in the sponge.  Since this was my first time making a dough that involved a sponge, I was a bit surprised that the wateriness of it.  When I went to pour it into the mixer bowl, it almost splashed out!  Not something I was expecting.  I mixed the bowl’s contents until the dry ingredients were combined and the mixture was smooth, about a minute.  Returning to the pastry board, I floured it and laid my ball of dough down.  I gave it a quick kneed, just so that I was sure everything was combined and smooth.  Then, I patted the dough until it measured about 6 by 8 inches.  The directions said to let the dough rest for 2 minutes, so I did.  Then, with a rolling pin, I rolled the dough until it was about 12 by 16 inches (or roughly doubled if you aren’t measuring).  I scooted the dough so that the 12 inch side was parallel with the edge of my counter and went to get my butter.  The butter was centered as best as I could on the dough before I folded the dough over it as one would fold a letter.  I pressed the edges together to seal 

Dough encasing the butter packet, prior to any turns.

the seems as well as I could.   Now it was time to make the “turns”.  (Sounds ominous, no?  It isn’t really, you just have to remember to count.)   Turning the dough so that the seam was facing my right, I rolled the dough lengthwise until it measured about 21 by12 inches.  Once again, I folded up the dough like a letter, making sure the edges were even.  I placed the dough on a cookie sheet and covered it with plastic wrap.  It then went into the fridge for 20 minutes.  This was end of the “first turn”  By this time, I was really beginning to relax.  I had made it through most of the recipe and still nothing difficult had come up.  The worst part was squishing all that butter together and the only that was awful was because my hand were unbearably greasy afterwards.  Not really something worth stressing out over.  While the dough was taking it’s mandatory rest, I scanned the recipe again, still looking for the caveat.  Nothing.


The completed first turn.

I took the dough out of the fridge and returned it to my pastry board, which I had again floured.  I turned the seam to my right, rolled it out to the 21 by 12 inch dimensions, folded it up like a letter and covering it once again returned it to the fridge.  My evening ended with 2 more turns like this and a final covering of plastic wrap.  I wrapped the plastic tightly and in 2 layers so as to make sure no air got in.  The dough then was to rest overnight while I slept and in the morning had a date with my pastry cutter.  I should note here that I foolishly placed the dough on the second shelf of my fridge, not thinking the dough would rise in the night.  The next morning, I did have to take out the top shelf so that I could remove my dough without gouging it to death in the process.  Don’t be fooled by the recipe saying the dough is “retarding” in the fridge.  It will still rise, maybe not as much as it would if it were on your counter, but it will still rise.

Dough the next morning.  Note how the rolling and folding of the dough has made beautiful layers.

I’m pretty sure that if my pastry board had emotions, it would have been shocked to see me again in the morning given this was the most time I had spent with it since acquiring it last winter.  But I tell you, I may never work with a butter based dough on any other surface.  Because the ceramic stays at a lower temperature naturally, it was very easy to work with my dough.  (Case in point, I made some sugar cookies the other night and as the butter warmed in the dough, the resulting cookies were sloppier in appearance than the ones that I made while the butter was still slightly firm.  The resulting cookies were not even close to being presentable for a shower favor.  Instead of cute duckies, they could have passed for the Loch Ness Monster.)  Anyway, this is now the fun part.  With my board scaper, I cut the dough into 4 equal parts.  Reading the directions again, I decided to freeze half the dough, since a full recipe would net 32 croissants and I didn’t know that I could should have that many in the house.  So, I wrapped 2 of the sections up and froze them.  (I’m planning to make them again maybe next weekend and will let you know how that goes.)  I took each block of dough and rolled it out until it was roughly 16 by 8 inches.  Then, I marked the dough at 4 inch intervals.  This gave me 4 rectangles measuring 4 by 8 inches each.  I then poked the dough with a fork to reduce the inevitable shrinkage and pulled the opposite corners of each rectangle so that when I cut it on a diagonal, I would have 2 isosceles triangles.    (My husband is of the opinion that I should have made larger triangles and I would agree.  The size that these produced was closer to that desirable for tea or breakfast.  Should I make these for sandwiches, I will have to at least at an additional 2 inches to the width, if not more.)  Each triangle was rolled up, starting at the widest portion and placed on a cookie 

 Rolled up triangles waiting for their milk bath.

sheet (lined with a silpat) with the tip tucked under.  I bent each croissant so that I would have the traditional crescent shape once they baked off.  I repeated this with each triangle until I had a total of 16 croissants on my baking sheet.  Each croissant got a bath of milk brushed on with a pastry brush and then was allowed to rise for an hour in a warm part of my kitchen.  

 Milk with pastry brush.

I preheated the oven to 400 about halfway through the rising process so that they would be able to have a little extra warmth in the kitchen.  January isn’t very kind to us weather wise, so I find I need to put in a bit more with the care of my yeasted doughs.  Right before I put the croissants in the oven, I brushed them with an egg wash (1 Teaspoon of water whisked with 1 egg).  It is important to note that you shouldn’t be too generous with the egg wash as you are brushing it on.  Start at the bottom of your pastry and try to not let any of it drip on your baking sheet.  Unless you want scrambled eggs with your croissants.  If that’s the case, be sloppy!  Bake the croissants for 10 minutes at 400 degrees and then reduce the heat to 350 and continue baking for an additional 10 minutes.  You can store your finished product once it has cooled for up to 3 days in an airtight container.  Mine didn’t last that long… but to be fair, I did have company.  I put them on my mother’s cake dish and displayed them on my dining room table.  Every time I walked by I was again reminded that I could in fact, do this.  That I made each and every one from scratch and they were good.  Not just good… merveilleux!

Resources: On Food and Cooking, Mastering the Art and Craft of Baking and Pastry, Great Coffee Cakes, Sticky Buns, Muffins & More.