Blog Renovations!

I am working on renovating and updating this site, so please bear with me (and let me know if the new theme or arrangement makes it hard to read or has any other problems).  The reason I am doing this is that 1. I have a new monitor with a higher resolution that was not supported by the previous theme, and 2. I hope that this new theme will be more mobile-user friendly (it purports to be!).

I will also be updating various pages, and digging through old content – some of it can stand being trashed, other parts can be revisited and highlighted, because they were written long ago and didn’t get as much exposure as I feel they deserved.

In short, don’t mind the drilling and the dust, I’m working on it!



Bread with Scandinavian Dairy; Food, Social Life, and Savings

One of my goals for this year is to put away more savings.  “Duh!” you probably think, “who doesn’t want to do that?”  And obviously, you are entirely right.  Unless someone is born rich, and money’s never been a problem for them, all of us could use a bit of savings.  The trick is – contrary to what those annoying clickbait ads tell you all over the internet, there is no ‘one weird trick’ to saving cash that works, because everyone’s life is very different, and what is a money-saver for one person, results in unnecessary waste of time for another, and exhaustion for yet another, and vice versa.

This article isn’t about that one weird trick, but it’s about something I, and the knitting klatsch I belong to, have began doing lately to be more budget-friendly to our less-financially-endowed members (and to those better off, too – none of us are rolling around in moolah, here, honestly), and the recipe I ended up designing as a side consequence of that.

Skyr bread 6 ETR
Yep, that’s the knitting types, wearing knitted stuff, obviously.  And eating.  Also obviously.

The recipe is for a white non-sourdough bread with lowfat/fat-free fermented dairy products so common in the Nordic countries.  It’s fantastic, if I do say so myself (and I do, and so does the knitting-and-eating crowd), and if you want to skip my pontification, just scroll down to it and enjoy!

So anyway – what led to the creation of this recipe is that some time ago for a number of reasons some of which having to do with coffee shop closing times in Jyväskylä, we decided to move our weekly meetings to a loosely-rotating schedule of hosting one when we can, and putting our names up for dates in advance to do so.  The person hosting cooks or asks for a potluck, everyone else shows up with or without food, and with or without knitting or crocheting, and babbling and stuffing mouth holes ensues.  This in itself is a great way to save money without sacrificing the activity, because the host can feed and caffeinate the entire crowd for roughly the price of a latte+donut or slice of cake in the city cafes, and all of us can cook and/or bake and/or slice fruit and brew tea.

In addition, one of the best (in cold weather, which is 3/4 of the year here in Finland, arguably) ways to feed a crowd for me is a giant pot of non-wishywashy hearty soup or stew (no bullshit cucumber-infused lukewarm water is passed for soup in this household!), and a loaf of bread.  And I do love to bake, and at times, I have the time and foresight and fortitude to start 2-3 days in advance, wake up my sourdough starter, and bake beautiful no-knead wheat or rye sourdough bread.  Aaaand on other weeks I am barely awake, and remember that I am hosting or that I have promised to bring a loaf of bread the night before the meeting.  No time to wake up sourdough starter or faff around, and so I turn to regular baker’s yeast – the dry yeast that I keep around in little sachets in the cold pantry to have on hand in case of emergency or not-so-emergency yeast baking.

But, I do love the flavor of sourdough, and while that can’t entirely be faked, you can make absolutely gorgeous bread without the starter that has at least a hint of the character of true sourdough, but is vastly easier to handle, works reliably, and tastes amazing, because I bake it with a generous amount of one of the traditional Nordic low-fat dairy products such as quark (kvarg, kesella or rahka), or skyr (which can be bought German-made under the generic name “Isk” in Lidl).  However, if you cannot get a hold of those, a strained variety of low-fat yogurt (low-fat Greek yogurt) can be substituted.  The key here is the bacterially-produced acid and protein from the dairy product, combined with a lack of excessive amounts of fat, not because I avoid fat, but because in high-temperature baking (such as used for bread), fat tends to burn and generally not be one’s friend.  The protein adds elasticity and flavor, while the acids (typically lactic or acetic or both) help preserve the bread and add character and flavor profile.

Not being a true sourdough, this won’t keep as long, but eh, I’d not had a problem with it not getting eaten before it goes bad.  The bread will keep fine for a day or two in a plastic bag at room temperature.  The recipe as given will make a very large loaf that would feed 6-8 people a large dinner alongside soup (or a family of 2 for 3 days).  It can easily be halved or reduced by 1/3 for smaller appetites.

So, what do you need to make it?

  • An oven and a cast iron pot with a lid, or a pizza stone and a stainless steel bowl (inexpensively acquired from IKEA) large enough to cover your bread.
  • 800g white bread flour (or ‘special white flour’ in Finland which is about 12% protein).
  • 20g (4 flat tsp) table salt.  Or fancy salt, whatever.
  • 7-12g sachet of dry yeast.  (Use about half if reducing recipe – yeast amount is not precise here)
  • 100g unsweetened dairy product of your choice (quark/rahka/kvarg, skyr or lowfat strained yogurt)
  • 460ml or g (same, but I weigh my water) of cold tap water.

What you need to do:

  • The night before you want the bread, mix up the dough:  combine flour, salt and dry yeast, and mix with a whisk.  Whisk the dairy into the water till no lumps are left.
  • Pour the liquid into flour mix, and stir with a spatula till it forms a lump of dough.  There’ll be some dry bits left in the bowl.  Scrape down the spatula, put it down, and gently work the dough with your hands till no dry bits are evident.  The dough will become fairly smooth and will mostly stick to itself.
  • Leave it in its bowl, seal it with plastic wrap, and pop a tiny exhaust hole with a toothpick or knifetip in the plastic.  If you have a few hours to bedtime, leave it at room temperature till you go to bed (it’ll rise considerably during 2-3 hours), at which point stick it in the fridge or cold pantry if you have one.  I leave mine on the floor near a cracked balcony door when it is -5C out so it’s very chilled but not frozen in the morning.  If you are mixing right before bed, leave it in a cool but not cold room-temperature location.
  • In the morning, lightly flour your work surface, and turn the dough onto it.  It’ll have tons of gluteney strands formed – use a dough scraper or spatula to get it to leave the bowl alone.
  • Stretch and fold the dough a couple of times, cover with bowl and go take a shower or whatever.  Give it 10-15 minutes to rest.
  • Lightly flour a piece of baking parchment or heavily flour a banetton (raising basket).  Form your dough into a ball, and put it in the baking basket seam-side up, or on the parchment seam-side down.  Spray a piece of plastic wrap with oil, or dampen a kitchen towel very slightly with water, and cover the dough.  Leave in a warm spot for 1-2 hours until it’s about 1.5-2 times its original size.  You can poke its side to see if it bounces back slowly, in which case it’s ready (fast bounce-back means it can use a bit more time).
  • Preheat oven with your pizza stone, cast iron pot, or just a baking sheet to 200C.  If using baking sheet, preheat to 225C – it has a lower heat capacity.  Read this about handling very hot cast iron and wrangling the dough into it, because I don’t want you to have horrible burns.
  • Once dough is ready, invert the banetton onto a piece of baking parchment (if you proofed the dough on parchment it’s already there), and slash the dough a few times with a serrated knife.  Place the dough carefully (with the parchment) into your cast iron pot (and cover), onto your pizza stone or heated baking sheet (and cover with an inverted steel bowl), set timer to 30 minutes, and reduce heat (in case of baking sheet) down to 200C.
  • In 30 minutes, open the oven, and using an oven glove and/or spatula remove the lid off the pot (put it somewhere heat-safe where you won’t touch it till it cools!), or the bowl off the sheet/pizza stone.  Bake bread for a further 25-35 minutes until it is a medium golden brown (pale gold is not nearly baked enough).
  • Carefully remove bread from the oven.  It should sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.  Cool on a rack for at least 2-3 hours before cutting (else you risk gummy crumb and no one likes gummy crumb).

That’s it.  This dough is remarkably well-behaved for a yeast dough, and requires no mixer or other appliances other than the stove to bake it.  Its ingredients are inexpensive, and the payoff is a luxurious loaf that people are happy to eat just with butter or dipping oil, and that makes a pot of soup into a feast.

Skyr bread 5 ETR


Make it, cook up some soup, and invite all your hungry friends for talk-and-eat.  Enjoy more social life at lesser expense.  Save money, make friends happy, and feel a sense of accomplishment when someone asks you where you bought the loaf.  As they probably will.

P.S.  Many thanks to A for taking the action photos!  I really appreciate it!

Bibimbap at Home (is possible)

One of the new dishes that I have added to my repertoire in the past few months, had no time to write about because I’ve been busy with my studies, but which has become an instant repeatedly-returning favorite in our house is bibimbap.

Bibimbap is a fairly well-known and loved Korean dish which is a favorite in just about any Korean restaurant in the West, sort of like a good fried rice is ordered repeatedly in Chinese and Thai eateries hereabouts.  It’s crunchy and spicy, and fresh, and endlessly customizable because you can make it with sliced steak, or bbq beef, or some pulled pork, or seafood, or vegetarian, and the number of the combinations (with or without homemade kimchi!) is limited only by your imagination.  And, in fact, we’ve been eating it in a lot of those permuations while I have been writing my dissertation, because in addition to its awesome culinary qualities, it’s also really quick to prepare, and does not necessitate much advance preparation.  It is one of those dishes you might decide to have, and be eating in about 45 minutes from the moment you made the decision.

I say 45 minutes advisedly, because while lots of books and blogs say that a ‘quick meal’ should be half an hour or less, I believe any hot meal that takes less than an hour from scratch is quick enough – there are things you can certainly make in under 10 minutes (halloumi or saganaki cheese salads come to mind!), but those aren’t what I think of when I think of a filling dinner, which bibimbap certainly is.

Unlike fried rice, however, bibimbap is less often prepared at home because as it is made in restaurants, it requires a specialized piece of cookware – a fairly expensive granite (stone) bowl which is heated until very hot and used to finish cooking the dish on the table in front of the eater.  Unless you have a gas stove and these bowls (and if you do, more power – and bibimbap! – to you!), you are obviously limited to the more conventional cookware.  But, with a bit of thought, that isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a limitation to your bibimbap dreams!  How so?  Well, the stone bowl in which it is traditionally cooked and served is nothing but a high-heat-capacity vessel that stays hot for a while.  What do conventional Western kitchens have that is similar to that?

If you answered ‘cast iron’, then bingo, you win (bibimbap, hopefully).  A cast iron skillet or, as it is in my case, a wok-shaped flat-bottomed cast-iron fondue pot (that’s what that wok-looking thing in the picture is – fondue pot with the lid removed!) works rather well.  If you have a large skillet or a cast-iron wok, or a wok-like thing like mine, it’s practical to cook bibimbap for 2-4 people in that, but if you are alone or have several smaller skillets, it’s entirely possible to make it in single portions like in the Korean restaurants.  It’s even more convenient than in stone because cast iron pots have handles, which make a lot of things in the kitchen easier.

Before we get to the how (which is really very easy, and if you’ve ever made stir-fry or fried rice, you know all the techniques!), let’s talk a bit about the ingredients.

Things you will definitely need:

  • Short-grain rice (sushi rice or Nordic porridge rice, uncracked, or any fat short-grain rice that stays whole and becomes gently sticky when cooked).
  • Untoasted sesame oil, peanut oil, or any other high-smokepoint cooking oil.
  • Korean chili paste (gochujang), although I have made this with sambal, too, with good results.
  • Eggs or egg yolks (I prefer yolks only) – raw if you live where it’s safe to eat those, or poached/pasteurized if you live in countries where salmonella isn’t eliminated in poultry and eggs.

Things which are all optional but you’ll need some of in order to avoid a miserably boring bibimbap:

  • Toasted sesame oil
  • Soy sauce (I use kikkoman brand)
  • Sesame seeds
  • Carrots, matchstick-cut
  • Cabbage, shredded
  • Green onions (scallions, salad onions) – green and white parts separated, white+light green parts halved or quartered lengthwise, green parts sliced into 2cm pieces
  • Yellow onion, french sliced.
  • Some seaweed (nori is fine), cut into small bits
  • Kimchi
  • Mung bean sprouts
  • Broccoli rabe or any other green vegetables, cut into smallish chunks
  • Chicken, steak, shrimp, pork, duck – cut into stir-fry sized strips.  I’ve also made this with seasoned browned ground beef of good quality, browned in large-ish chunks, and it worked well.
  • Shiitake or other mushrooms, thinly sliced.
  • Red chili, seeded and matchsticked, to garnish.
  • Whatever else you feel would look and taste good on the rice.

Here is what you do:

  • Steam the rice:  Take approximately 80-100g of dry rice per person (depending on how hungry the persons are!), and rinse thoroughly with cold water in a sieve till water runs clear.  Set to drain.
  • In meantime, measure out water into a pot in a proportion of 200g of rice to 265g of water.  You might have to do a bit of math to recalculate to your own amount of rice, but I trust you to do that.  Doing this by weight has given me consistent and good results for steaming rice without a rice cooker.  Obviously if you have one, steam as in the machine directions.
  • Once rice is drained, add it to the water, and bring to the boil, at which point you should turn the heat to low, cover the rice with a tight-fitting lid, and cook for 10 minutes.  When those 10 minutes are up, turn the heat off and leave the rice where it is (on the warm burner) for another 10 minutes or longer.  (As you deal with everything else, you can leave the rice on the turned-off burner for longer as needed.)
  • While the rice is steaming, prepare your vegetables by stir-frying them quickly in a hot pan or wok with non-toasted sesame or other neutral oil, and setting them aside.
  • Stir-fry your meat or seafood, or if you are having a steak, sear it on both sides, and slice across the grain.  Kimchi can be used as-is or quickly stir-fried as well if you like.
  • Mix the desired amount (I use a couple of tablespoons, generously, for 2 people) of gochujang (Korean chili paste) with a teaspoon or two of soy sauce, a few drops of rice vinegar and a teaspoon or two of toasted sesame oil and set aside.  If using sambal, you can use it straight out of the jar.
  • When all the prep is done, put your cast iron vessel on the stove, and start heating it on medium-high heat.  Pour in a few tablespoons of your cooking oil, and use a bit of paper towel to wipe a thin film of it on the sides (the bottom should have a small puddle similar to that of a wok for stir-frying).  Preheat until the oil puddle starts to shimmer, and/or barely first hint of smoking.
  • Dump all the rice into hot oil.  Beware of splashes.  Fluff the rice to even it out somewhat, and sprinkle the top with seaweed (if using).  The rice will sizzle.  You will want to let it sizzle until the sides/bottom of the rice begin to form a barely-colored golden crust.
  • Carefully place any of the desired toppings on top of the rice, leaving a ‘bare’ window in the middle.
  • Add the gochujang mix or sambal to the available spot.  Sprinkle with sesame seeds generously (if using).  Top with a raw egg yolk per person – 2 yolks for 3 people work ok in a pinch. (if using poached eggs, bring those to the table).

Bibimbap II ETR

Take the cast iron off heat, and if you are making individual servings in small skillets, serve those to the table (on trivets, as they are obviously hot!), topped with an egg, to be mixed with chopsticks by the eater.  When I prepare a communal bowl in my wok-shaped pot, I bring it to the table, put it on a cork stand, and mix the egg yolks, chili paste and toppings in with bamboo utensils, breaking up the rice crust into bite-sized chunks, and then serve into bowls.

Serve sliced red chilies or kimchi (or additional sliced greens for garnish) at the table.

Sit down, and stuff your faces.

The end.

*As always, I make no claims of authenticity – only that this turns out pretty close to what a good Korean restaurant typically serves you, and that it’s damn delicious.  Which it totally is.

I Dream of Italy (How do you shop?)

Italian Food ETR
Scamorza affumicata, Pecorino Toscano, and some happy happy rainbow pasta of happiness.

T’s parents are great people with whom I get along very well, so it’s not surprising that when T and I visit Stockholm and stay with them, I offer chef services for the family, and they are happy to let me cook for them a few times while we are there.  I love cooking, and I love cooking for people I care about, and they love eating my food, so it’s happiness all around.

The only complication – and I don’t call it a problem, because a problem it isn’t – is that we have distinctly divergent ways of thinking about shopping for food, and deciding what to cook and eat.   What I mean is – T’s parents tend to decide what they want to eat before they leave the house.  They check the recipes, write a precise shopping list, and go to the store with it, following it exactly.  This isn’t criticism – it is actually a very good way to avoid buying more of what you don’t need, and therefore wasting less money.  My method of shopping involves some planning and making lists too – but those lists are of pantry-restocking items, slowly added to over a week or so, as supplies (salt, flour, coffee, etc.) run out.  And a lot of times I do decide that I want to make and eat something, in particular if there is a party in the works, or if I want to buy a large piece of meat and cook it for eating it over the course of many days, or if I have a specific craving for something.

Where the difference really lies is that I engage in what I term opportunistic shopping.  What I mean by that is when I arrive at the store, and see that they have just gotten in a giant pile of nice cuts of good meat on special, or a pallet of cans of artichoke hearts, or gloriously pretty seasonal vegetables, or any number of things that I know I will eat and/or that won’t go bad if I don’t eat them in a week (like the cans of artichokes or hard cheeses or cured sausages), I will buy those, and decide what I make for dinner based on what the opportunity has provided.  I rarely if ever impulse-buy candy or clothes, but I am known to impulse-buy vegetables, and also nice waterfowl, or 2-4kg cuts of pork shoulder.  I should not be left unattended near a case of frozen ducks or baby geese.

I think this behavior throws my in-laws off a little (but they are nice and don’t say anything, really), because I wander the supermarket in apparent aimlessness, looking for inspiration without a clear idea of what I want to buy, cook and eat in mind, until I either find it, or decide on a staple.  And I like it better when I do find it, because, when life gives you me scamorza affumicata, a large tub of Italian mascarpone, artichoke hearts, or a chunk of pecorino Toscano, who am I to disagree and say no, I don’t want Italian delicacies, I had planned to buy a sack of turnips and a block of random cooking cheese*!

*It’s important to note that I do stick to my strict lists when I am on a small food budget, unless the items on sale would provide a better value, by which I mean that they are either equivalent or close in price, or I would use less of the more expensive item because it has more flavor.  However, within the constraints of my food budget, I am happy to replace a block of hushållsost (not particularly fancy but good cheese I buy for cooking) with a block of something more awesome, especially at a good price.

Truth be told, yesterday morning, I went out to shop very prosaically – we’d started to run low on basic stuff like coffee, onions, cabbage, and garbage bags.

No, I don’t eat garbage bags, but they are acquired in the same place as food, and the garbage bag situation had become most urgent, so I picked up my running list of “things I am low/out of in the pantry”, and went out.  And that is how I found myself on my way to shop with a list and no interesting food thoughts in mind.  The prose lasted until I got to Lidl, and once there, I realized that it’s Italian food week, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is pure food poetry.

When you live in the latitudes of Central Finland (Stockholm supermarkets, I miss you!), even with access to a gourmet supermarket (and we do have a decent one in town), some things are not within your everyday reach.  Things like scamorza affumicata, or tubs of gorgeous mozzarella di bufala Campana, fancy mascarpone, or generous chunks of prosciutto di Parma, and bags of artisanal pasta.  This makes me a sad panda because I do love Italian food – I’ve loved it before, during, and after visiting Italy, which truly didn’t disappoint.  But, during their Italian weeks, Lidl, of all places, brings the joy of Italian food shopping even to Central Finland.  And so I have bought a pile of Italian staples for my pantry, some for a specific tiramisu purpose – ladyfingers and mascarpone, I am looking at you! – and some because it’s never a bad idea to have a bag of fancy dried pasta, or a tub of seasoned olives around – unless you have celiac disease and hate olives, in which case it’s (a) not a good idea, and (b) I am sorry for you.  But I love olives and I do happily eat high-quality gluten, so there is much rejoycing.

So, thanks to the opportunity to buy Italian food, I have changed my plans for the week somewhat, although I still dutifully bought garbage bags and toilet paper, because those aren’t exactly the sort of food-related items you can, or want to, replace by a hunk of good cheese.  The rest of what I have bought have been pure inspiration – smoked scamorza (mozzarella-like cheese) for hot openfaced canape sandwiches, to go with a tomato soup later in the week, ladyfingers and mascarpone for a traditional-with-yes!-raw-egg-yolks-in-it no-holds-barred tiramisu, rainbow-colored fancy pasta for a pasta with fresh spring greens when those show up – I am thinking asparagus or something equally evocative of spring.

And pecorino… there are just so many ideas that make me drool.  Grating it into bread dough to make amazing cheese bread.  Shaving it over some simple fresh pasta with a drizzle of truffle oil.  Shaving it onto a nice salad of bitter greens with a sharp vinaigrette dressing… the list goes on an on.  Needless to say, I’ve never had a piece of pecorino go bad in my fridge.  For lunch today, my plan is to boil some spaghetti; throw chopped olives, capers, maybe some lemon zest, and minced garlic into a pan with olive oil, sizzle for a few seconds, and toss with the spaghetti.  Add in a generous handful of flat-leaf parsley, and shave some of my precious pecorino on top of that.  I don’t know if it’s any sort of authentic Italian preparation – if it is, that is purely coincidental.  I make no claims of authenticity, but the very idea of it makes me drool.  I’ll let you know how that turned out.

And now, a moment of curiosity – do you shop opportunistically, or do you stick to your lists?  Do you look for food inspiration in what’s available and/or beautiful in the stores or markets, or do you stick to your menu plan and ignore temptations?  Does this change depending on the size of your budget?  Within your food budget, do you have your own impulse-buy splurge items that you feel it’d be just wrong to leave at the store?  I’d love to hear from you.