When I was growing up, there were essentially two kinds of cheese–Cheddar and Velveeta. Cheddar meant your family was in the dough for a change, and Velveeta was for when you were almost broke. We mainly had Velveeta, until American cheese singles came along.
How times change–now I am making regularly a classic Italian snack, in a piece of Lodge Tennessee made cast iron. The ingredients here are all either local or Italian.
1 1/2 cups Tipo “00” Fine Italian Flour
1 tablespoon Italian Olive Oil
3/4 cup Water
2 teaspoons Yeast
1 teaspoon Sugar
Mix all the ingredients together, or dissolve the yeast and sugar in some water first. Knead, let rise, and and shape it as if making a pizza dough. This amount of dough will make two 11″ x 7″ Focaccia.
One medium Tomato, sliced, from the Festhalle
Hard Cheese, Grated
Chopped Rosemary, Rosemary grown by yours truly
More Olive Oil
Freshness is the key to all Italian dishes. This cheese was new to me, when I stumbled across it at our supermarket, as a two for one deal. It’s a typically superior hard Italian cheese, this one being from the Italian Alps. It is considered to be the northern Italian equivalent of Parmesan, at a much lower price. That, alas, will not last long.
So there are more than two kinds of cheese, after all. The Piave is every bit as good as Parmesan. In a fit of nostalgia, I once bought organic American cheese singles from Whole Foods. That’s yuppie to the point of crossing over to the dark side.
Combining my two favorite pastimes, woodworking and eating, was fun. It gave me two excuses–make more kitchenware, and buy more kitchen-alia.
The walnut cheese board is free edge, or live edge, depending on which terminology you prefer. George Nakashima, a master of this form, preferred free edge. Speaking of that, here it is.
I left on the inner bark just to emphasize the point. I even have a borer hole–probably the last one that bug ever made, because the wood is toxic to our bug friends. The finish is walnut oil, naturally. I also made the best salad dressing I have ever had out of it. Apologies to all of the unfinished pieces of wood I have lying around.
This Laguiole cheese set was bought from Fleabay for the price of a six pack. Some rubbing compound on the stainless, some sandpaper and walnut oil on the handles, and they look better than the ones that come out of the factory. From the grainy picture on the interwebs I thought they were walnut handles–after finishing them, I think they are rosewood instead.
Now it’s time to go to Nerdlandia and talk about the Mammoth Cheese that Mr.Jefferson was given as a tribute for his support of religious freedom. How big was it? A little over 15 x 4 feet big, and weighed 1230 pounds. Too big for my knives.
The Baptists of Cheshire, MA, had had enough of the Federalists and their lackey Congregationalist ministers down grading their religion, and saying that Jefferson would burn every bible in New England, and turn all their women into prostitutes (that last gem came from the President of Yale). Therefore, they made the Mammoth Cheese, and engraved it with the phrase “REBELLION TO TYRANTS IS OBEDIENCE TO GOD.” Then they hauled it down to Washington.
Jefferson threw a big reception for the big cheese, and made the church accept a payment of $200. Church elder John Leland, the mastermind of this clever scheme, thanked Jefferson for the “singular blessings that have been derived from the numerous services you have rendered to mankind in general.” Then they all had some cheese.
Later that same day, perhaps inspired by the cheese, Jefferson wrote one of the most famous Presidential documents in history, reassuring the Baptists of Danbury, MA, that the new constitution insured their religious freedom, and that the Jefferson administration would protect them. Here’s the key paragraph:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
Letters of Thomas Jefferson
The wall of separation phrase was eventually adapted as case law precedent by the Supreme Court. Two years after the big cheese hit town, the US Navy produced a Mammoth Loaf of Bread, to go with the Mammoth Cheese. In typical fashion, Jefferson sent the loaf to the Senate, “along with with a large amount of roast beef, cider, and whiskey,” according to the National Constitution Center. The cheese lasted longer than the bread did. My guess is, knowing the habits of Senators, that the whiskey went first.
In honor of Mr, Jefferson, and his insistence that there be a Bill of Rights attached to the constitution, I will have a cheese plate, and a cheeseburger, on the Fourth of July. I think he had something to do with that holiday as well.
It happens. This is not a kitchen intervention or a kitchen rescue, this is about when your kitchen begins to invade the rest of your house. We have at least three living spaces where the kitchen is slowly creeping in. I will mention two, but describe one in detail.
In detail–I made this dough bench intending that it be used strictly for bread making. The USA made maple butcher block top is oversized to accommodate clamped on tools–too bad it’s too thick for any of them that we have. Instead, I have a clamped down meat grinder, an Enterprise #22. Which leads to the four tasks this unit now performs.
Meat Grinding/Sausage Making
The #22 grinder is such a beast that it requires a bolted down installation. The clamp on version is much less common, and less useful. This will grind pounds of meat in a matter of minutes, and in a variety of grinding thicknesses/textures. It’s clamped on with a giant c-clamp.
The sausage making tools are stowed beneath the butcher block. Essentially, these consist of a sausage plate and three sausage stuffing tubes of different diameters to accommodate different sized casings. The world of sausage is infinite, and worth the trouble, for as Bismarck reportedly said “The less you know about how laws and sausages are made, the happier you are.” He was reffering to bought sausages and purchased politicians.
It’s far better to have good drinkable wine than fancy wine storage. Jacques Pepin once showed off his homemade wine storage, and it was essentially plywood boxes in his basement.
Our little portable rack is all we need, what with our regular trips to the good wine selection at our local Publix supermarket. Most of our wine is Italian, French, or German, as all three countries have strict wine regulations.
An antique but portable item, this old pecan cracker that belonged to MJ’s grandparents has a definite 1900 industrial look. The only thing it won’t crack are hickory nuts, but I have a 23 ounce framing hammer for those. Not too many people have a Pecan cracker in their living room, but sometimes nuts need to be cracked.
And it sometimes is even used for what it was intended! Everything ensconced on the top can be removed quickly. If I am making my usual Creole French bread, there is not even the need to do that. Even the French baguette pan is housed directly under the butcher block top.
The last two invasions: our dining room literally has an entire wall covered with dishes and glassware. Even the bookcase next to the dough bench is being invaded, as it is now 1/8 food books. In amongst my two first edition works by Henry James are food autobiographies by Jacques Pepin, Julia Child, and Barbara Kingsolver, and sausage making books, which are handy for task #1. I should also add that MJ’s corporate home office is overseen by two shelves of cookbooks, stacked in various configurations, one of which is a strong 19″ high.
And then there is the rolling pin hanging on the wall, which is soon to be joined by another. Every living room needs a couple of those.
Robert Pirsig, author of the fascinating and riveting book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, literally had a breakdown trying to answer the question of, What is quality? If only he had known about a really good tomato sandwich. This three ingredient sandwich is the equivalent of Southern Zen–if done properly. Here’s how I make it.
Heirloom Tomatoes, preferably home or locally grown
Sliced and Toasted Creole French Bread
Mayonnaise (I will learn to make this one day, with the hope that I don’t become as obsessed by it as Julia Child did)
Simple? Yes, but everything depends on the quality of the ingredients. Most generic recipes sound like they are stuck in the 1970’s. Here’s the usual.
White Sliced Bread (the kind that comes in a plastic bag)
So much is wrong here, that it is difficult to know where to start. I will begin with the low hanging fruit. I had students tell me that they didn’t like tomatoes, after I brought up this controversial sandwich. My immediate question was, Have you ever had a tomato that didn’t come from the supermarket? The answer was always no.
The reason for their response is that essentially all supermarket tomatoes, despite their appearance, are green. The practice of gassing tomatoes with ethylene became commonplace in the 1970’s, and ethylene is a gas that turns green tomatoes red, even though they are still completely unripe. Try a slice of that on your BLT, and tell me what you think of tomatoes.
As far as bread in a plastic bag goes, first, buy as few things packed in plastic as you can. That white bread is practically embalmed anyway, considering how many preservatives it has in it. Topped with a good tomato that sandwich will still be good, as another major ingredient of that white bread is air, which is pumped into the dough.
There are all sorts of superfluous additions to this sandwich, but I only consider three to be appropriate.
If you want to add something like avocado, knock yourself out. Just don’t call it a tomato sandwich. Your zen is all gone. One of my favorite zen riddles has to do with the master who asked a novice the meaning of zen. The novice said that all was emptiness. The master just grabbed a stick, and gave the student a giant whack, which made the student really angry.
The master just said, “If all is emptiness, then were does your anger come from?” Enough said.
What we have here is a dairy-less Chicken a la King with turkey added, and fancied up with morels. I am carefully rationing my years supply of morels, because they are renewed yearly only on December 24. This seemed like a good time to use a few.
3 dried Morels, reconstituted and sliced (Porcini or Oyster work also)
1 tablespoon Olive Oil
1 tablespoon Flour
I sweet Pepper, chopped
Salt and Pepper
1 cup cooked Chicken and/or Turkey
The cooking is simple. Make a blonde (light colored) roux with the oil and flour, stirring constantly. Add the chopped pepper, and stir for another minute or so. Add the morel water, filtered through a paper towel, and the chicken stock, until the sauce reaches the desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper, and simmer until the sweet pepper taste becomes apparent–I let it go for around ten minutes, and add more stock if necessary. Finally add the cooked bird, and warm it all the way through. Best if served on toasted baguette slices.
Though I am far from being a calorie counter, this strikes me as a healthier dish than the normal butter and milk a la King. It certainly tastes better than one with canned mushrooms. Good cage free organic chicken doesn’t hurt, either. For the best chicken satire ever, see this old video from the days when Steven Colbert still did The Colbert Report. This is not a spoiler, but he has a pet chicken named Shirley, who is boneless, and lives inside a paper towel roll tube.
These are the last two tools in the catalog of devices needed to cook in a brick oven. One is the first tool needed, the other one of the last, but also one of the most important. We’ll begin with my trusty industrial sized mop.
My wife eventually gifted this mop to me after she found it to be too big and bulky to use in our house. I immediately drilled a hole through the handle, tied a piece of accessory cord threaded through the hole into a loop, and hung it on the rafters on the oven. It’s been there ever since.
The mop is the final cleaning tool used before baking either bread or pizza in a brick oven, as the baking is done directly on the brick surface of the oven. The brush takes away the larger bits and pieces, and the mop finishes the job. Usually two passes with the mop is necessary to provide a surface suitable and clean enough for cooking. Some dispensation must be made to provide a way to rinse the mop off between passes-I have a lawn hydrant adjacent to my oven.
This mop occasionally gets set on fire while making pizza in a 900 degree F oven, but the cotton part can be replaced, and has been. I think these are still made in the US, and can be found fairly easily. I also use it for mopping the slate top on my Rustic Cabinet, which is connected to my brick oven. Would also be great swabbing the deck of an eighteenth century frigate.
The first tool anyone starting a fire in a brick oven is going to resort to is a fireplace poker. This one was made by an Amish blacksmith in Ohio. It’s the best I have ever seen, as it can multitask. It’s thick steel and hook end make it perfect for lifting the lids on cast iron Dutch/Camping ovens. Best used with a pair of welding gloves, as it’s only drawback is that it can only reach so far into a brick oven. That’s when the scraper comes in handy.
So gear up and get to cooking. We plan on doing just that again this weekend, unless we get walloped by the tropical storm that is currently lurking on the Gulf Coast. Our current forecast is for two to four inches of rain. Guess that’s why I put a roof over my oven.
Two essential tools for the efficient use of a Brick Oven are a scraper and a brush. Many people buy them separately, but why? This old US made scraper/brush combo is over fifteen years old, and has years of use left. And I leave it outside hanging on the oven.
Just last weekend I cooked pizza for nine people on the hottest day of the year, with a blazing hot oak/pine fire, and never even broke a sweat. I could do that because of the efficiency of the scraper/brush. Let’s begin with the most useful side–the scraper.
The scraper side serves two important functions, which are scraping, and bulldozing. As a scraper it performs both maintenance and cooking functions. The long handle allows its use as an ash remover, as it reaches all the way to the back of even a large oven. Many modern ovens, like mine, have an ash slot where the remains of yesterday’s fire can be easily scraped away.
Secondly, if you’re making bread or even just baking, the scraper allows one to reposition the fire and/or coals easily, which is a skill that I will address in a later post.
If you’re into pizza or baking, this thing can bulldoze any fire into the back of the oven, which is a necessity when making pizza. Once that is done, it’s time to put the brush to work.
That rather dangerous looking wire brush is really a preliminary clean up tool. It removes most of the ashes from a working fire, as well as small embers and stray pieces of wood. It prepares the surface of the brick oven for the final tool that is needed for the cooking of a pizza–a mop. That will be one of the last two tools I will discuss, but that is a whole another post.
Creole French Bread, also known as New Orleans French Bread, is not really French bread at all. French bread, in the form of the classic baguette, is a simple bread made with salt, yeast, flour and water. Creole French Bread is closer to an Italian bread, in that it is enriched or fortified with some form of fat, and usually a small amount of sugar. (Red Star yeast has an excellent concise run down of what fat adds to a loaf.)
If you do a quick check on the internet, you will find various recipes for this bread using a number of different fats. Commercial varieties often use vegetable shortening, though one of the most famous ones uses soy oil. Why such cheap ingredients? Because those folks are out to make a buck, and pennies matter. As a home baker not concerned with economies of scale, I use as high a quality of ingredient as possible. The following recipe, which I have made weekly for years, uses olive oil. This will make two baguettes, two po-boy buns, or a small loaf.
2 teaspoons instant Yeast (I end up buying two pound bags of Red Star regularly)
I make the dough in our thirty something year old Kitchenaid stand mixer-they weren’t kidding when they printed “Heavy Duty” on the side of the machine. Use the dough hook attachment, and mix until a ball of dough is formed.
The next step is the yeast mixture. I combine the three ingredients in a one cup measurer that I also use for the flour. Stir, and I let it sit until the mixture rises to the top of the measuring cup. That also gives the dough a little time to hydrate. Mix those together with the dough mixture, though a little additional flour is usually necessary to keep the dough from being overly sticky. Now it’s time for the rise.
Any oiled container will do to hold the dough for the first rise, but old school Southerners insist on wooden dough bowls. This one was made by Loyd George of Decatur, Alabama, out of Tulip Poplar. Cover the dough with a damp kitchen towel, and let rise. How long will depend on the temp of your kitchen. The general rule is to let it double in size, usually around an hour.
For baguettes/po-boy buns, a loaf must be formed by hand. Divide the dough in half, and form into an oval. Fold over once longways, and roll out the loafs from the middle outward. (King Arthur has a great tutorial showing how to do this.) For baguettes, it’s easier to put the loaves in a baguette pan; po-boy buns go onto a baking sheet, and are slightly flattened out. Loafs can go onto a baking sheet or a loaf pan. All must be covered with a towel, and allowed to rise again.
Here’s where the bread paths diverge. I cook po-boy buns at 375 degrees, loaves at 400, and baguettes at 450. Baguettes need to be slashed to keep from splitting open while baking, while slashing is optional for the loaves, and never done with po-boybuns. Cooking times are thirty minutes or more for buns and loaves, and twenty minutes or so for the baguettes.
The resulting bread should be crispy crunchy on the outside, and incredibly soft on the inside. The superiority of this bread to any commercial one will become apparent at the first bite. It only stays fresh for about a day, but can be frozen and warmed up with little noticeable change in quality. For one use of this bread, see my post on Creole Onion Soup. You’ll end up neglecting the soup for the bread.