Part science, part biology, part art, bread baking can be intimidating and results unpredictable at times. The combination of yeast with water and flour creates a living organism that sometimes has a mind of its own. In spite of that, I've found making bread to be immensely rewarding. Not only is the end product delicious, the process of mixing together a few basic ingredients using methods that have't really changed in thousands of years ago feels grounding and life sustaining. Using a natural leavening agent, commonly referred to as "sourdough", just makes the whole process that much more rewarding.
If I had to name one food that has had the greatest historical influence it would have to be bread. Geography, politics, agricultural practices, culture, ceremony, mysticism and religion have all been shaped by a simple concoction of flour and water.
Bread, for example was the reason for the first monoculture – wheat – and eventually led to agricultural practices that resulted in clearing large swathes of land. Bread formed the foundation of ancient religions, like the Eleusians who incorporated the sacred food into secret ceremonies that worshipped the goddess Demeter. Christ referred to himself as “the bread of life”, while in some cultures, the word “bread” actually translates to “life”.
While not one to really jump on the whole pumpkin-spice-everything autumn bandwagon, I do like pumpkin AND I like it spiced up with nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. These scones smell delicious when they're cooking, and taste even better. They're also a great way to use up the innards of a jack-o-lantern!
Every year, I need to have at least one feed of fried green tomatoes from my garden, drenching the firm, tangy flesh of an unripened tomato in breadcrumbs and frying in melted butter. So delicious, especially when served with rosemary aioli. These are super easy to make and are a great side dish for grilled meats or fish.
Rhubarb is the quintessential taste of summer, and here in Northwestern Ontario, the first harvest from the garden. With rhubarb plants taking over back yards and laneways, it usually isn't difficult to find a good supply. My own rhubarb plant is still getting established, so I raided the neighbour's garden and
This rich sweet bread laced with dark chocolate came about as a bit of an experiment. Leading up to Easter 2021, I started researching breads baked by various cultures around the world. Many Eastern European countries have some version of an enriched bread baked to celebrate Christian or Jewish holidays. Paska, Bapka, Kulich, Challah -- some had fruit, others were spiced and they all varied slightly in shape and design.
My father bought his first boat when I was a young child and most of my summer memories involve sailing -- Lake Superior, fog, quiet anchorages, meeting other boaters, the sound of water tapping against the hull, the wind in the rigging... These memories have crept into my written work in many ways. They've also influenced my baking.
I've recently been exploring breads of the world and came across lots of great information about the origin of fermented starters (sourdough) and leavened breads. I decided to try out a recipe for Aish Baladi, one of the most commonly baked breads of Egypt. "Baladi" means traditional or country and while the standard word for bread in Arabic countries is “khubz” (or a variation thereof) "Aish" means life. In Egypt, bread is life. That resonates with me.
In spite of the fact that I grew up with Finnish heritage and my husband is also half Finn, I didn't really experience piirakka (pe-e'-rak-ka) until I was well into adulthood. These are generally a savoury-salty treat, made with rye dough and filled with rice pudding. The traditional topping is egg butter, but I often use jam to sweeten things up. Of course, these are best served with a cup of strong Finnish coffee, but they make a great pack-along snack for winter adventures.
This was a request from my son for those "monkey balls" I usually make around Thanksgiving.... Hah! How could I refuse that? Monkey bread is a sweet soft pastry that's made by baking pieces of dough that have been dipped in butter and rolled in spices. This version includes pumpkin and is perfect for an autumn weekend. It's best served warm, drizzled with maple glaze. Gather the gang around while the turkey is cooking and pull yourself a monkey ball... I mean delicious morsel of pumpkin-spice gooeyness.
It's still the season for all things zucchini! While my own zucchini plants produced mostly male blossoms this year (we only harvested a few squash from them) I was fortunately gifted several fully grown zucchini. While some folks close their curtains and hide in the basement if they see someone walking up to the door with a squash big enough build a canoe with, I'm always thrilled. I tend to toss zucchini into everything.
These delicious roasted morsels are insanely easy to make and freeze incredibly well. Perfect for adding to soups, topping pizzas, or garnishing chicken breasts, you can add herbs and garlic and roast them down to crispy chewy candy if you like. I almost didn't make any this year. Here's the story.
I went to the superstore a little over a week ago and got caught up in the frenzy of bulk tomato buying. While elderly Italian men were carting away four or more boxes of these gorgeous Ontario-grown Roma tomatoes, I thought I would start with one. I had visions of a pantry full of home-canned tomato sauce to keep us warm during the long dark winter.
I love squash blossoms—their gorgeous orange-yellow colour, their wide mouths, their sensuality, their delicious flavour… and this is one of my favourite ways to prepare them. Only the female blossoms develop into zucchini, so the male blossoms can be harvested and eaten. I usually pick them late morning when they are just starting to close and you can still see down their throats to identify their sex. When you pick them, leave some of the stem attached and place them in a glass of water until you’re ready to cook them.
My first introduction to Quinoa was during our family backpacking trip to South America in 2007. It was a common ingredient in soup we ate in Peru and Bolivia and I loved its nuttiness and texture. When we returned home, it hadn't yet achieved its celebrated status in our North American diets, but has since become widely used for salads and side dishes. Quinoa is a seed that is high in protein and is gluten free, and makes a great foundation for salad bowls.
Each of my kids has a favourite meal they request for special occasions, and this is often requested. I took a basic gnocchi recipe and added sweet potato, tossed them in brown butter and served them sprinkled with crispy fried sage. This year, the deer have made a buffet of my garden (even sneaking under the screening to nibble the snap peas) but my sage is flourishing so I was craving the flavour of this dish. I often make a big batch and have some on-hand in the freezer. Serve with a crusty baguette, tossed salad and a chilled bottle of Pinot Grigio.
A few years ago, I was fortunate to do a "cooking class" in the summer kitchen of one of my Italian friends' aunt's house. Zia and Nonna taught us how to make pasta, gnocchi and lemon cookies AND sent us home with bags of delicious gnocchi for our dinner. (Thank you Cathy!!) Since then, I've branched out from the basics I learned from them and adapted their recipes. Well, not really recipes, since nothing was written down, but I did my best to capture the "cups of" this the "pinch" of that and the the feel of the dough when it's been worked enough.
We stocked up on dried beans of all sorts as part of our pre-COVID-19 quarantine provisioning. I often use canned chick peas to make hummus or to add to curries and salads, but I had only ever used dried on canoe-camping trips. I made this felafel recipe a couple of times, and the freshness of the re-hydrated (but uncooked) peas makes a tasty difference.
It might sound strange to put lettuce on the grill, but once you've tried this, you may never go back to regular Caesar salad again. I've included my dressing recipe, but feel free to use your favourite. Plan for about 1/4 to 1/3 of a head of Romaine per person, but this can vary depending on the size of the head (and the appetites of the persons -- when feeding Pendziwols, I use a half head per person.)
These came about out of necessity -- I had planned my weekly grocery shopping around our menu so that we could have fresh buns on hamburger night. And then I forgot the hamburger buns. (Typical Jean E move.) Instead of going back to the store (which I would have done pre-COVID) I opted to try making buns. They turned out to be delicious. This brioche style bun has ruined us for store-bought forever.
Pretzels are super delicious and quite easy to make. Since it's easier to find fresh yeast right now than traditional or instant, I decided to try out the fresh to see how it worked. Fresh yeast requires "proofing" and making a "sponge" is also recommended. This takes a little bit more time, but the results and taste are worth it. We also decided to add prosciutto and Thunder Oak Gouda to our pretzels to make them a great picnic pack-along. For the plain pretzels, we made a sharp cheddar cheese and Sleeping Giant Brewery dip that was also delicious.
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Jean E. Pendziwol
I live on the north shore of Lake Superior where I write books for kids and adults. I express love and care through food and have a particular fascination with bread! Join me as I explore the cultural significance of bread around the world and experiment with recipes for everything from quick breads to flatbreads, soudoughs and brioche. It promises to be a delicious journey!