Thursday, November 12, 2009

Homebrew Beer for Beginners (like me)

Brewing my own beer is something that I have wanted to do for a very long time. I grew up appreciating good beer – I was never one to binge drink Coors Light just because it was cheap and available. Beer is something to be appreciated.

I like to cook and bake because I enjoy the process, but also because I like to eat. It therefore stands to reason that I would be interested in brewing beer – a fun project, with (hopefully) delicious results. I was also interested in the process because my grandfather used to brew his own brews. In fact, I inherited some supplies from him that I faithfully moved (and stored) from one home to another before finally disposing of them just months before getting into brewing myself.

Not to be deterred, I checked in with a friend of mine whom I know to have done some serious brewing in the past. Turns out it had been a while for him and he was looking to get started again, so I had the pleasure of joining him for a few of his all-grain brew sessions. Once I finally got started on my own, I started with a kit, as most beginners do. However, having had the experience helping with an all-grain brew, I am quickly moving in that direction. It’s just a much more enjoyable process and you ultimately have much more control over the ingredients, process, and final product.

Having asked countless questions, read up on various online forums, etc., I finally purchased a kit from Williams Brewing and got started on my own. The first kit I brewed was an American IPA (actually I brewed one before that on my friends equipment, but due to some freezing conditions in my new fridge, the product was a bust). The IPA was hoppy and delicious, but also suffered from the same fridge freezing conditions. After going through about a dozen freeze-thaw cycles, the last bit of the brew just felt anemic and flat. Overall however, a relative success, and when the temp was well controlled, the beer was awesome.

The beer in these pictures is an Amarillo Ale, named after the Amarillo hops used in it (floral and citrusy), again a kit from Williams Brewing. This was the first time I brewed outside on my new propane burner, which I love it. Speeds the process up, the house doesn’t smell, no fear of boilovers becoming a sticky kitchen mess, and it just feels right to be outside while brewing.

The beer making process is not that difficult, and does not need to be as fussy as some make it seem. You can certainly get very high-tech and precise in measurements and temperatures, or you can just make some beer, man.

It goes without saying that keeping things clean is very important. I wash everything well and sanitize with a common homebrew sanitizer.

Let's brew!

1. Boil water – My largest pot (for now) holds about three gallons so I brew a concentrated brew and then add water when it’s time to cool before pitching yeast.

2. Add malt extract – The Williams Brewing kits use liquid malt extract, some use Dry Malt Extract (DME). The key is to dunk the bag of thick, sticky syrup into the boiling water for a bit to loosen it all up before cutting open and pouring into the pot, or probably more sanitary is to squeeze out the syrup and then ladle some hot water into the bag, slosh around and pour out, but we're about to boil for almost an hour so I'm not too worried. Also, it’s best to turn the heat off while adding the malt and stir as constantly as possible so none of the sugary syrup burns on the bottom of the pot.

3. Boil away – After bring the pot back to a boil keep an eye on the heat level, this is when things can easily bowl over. If it starts to, just lower the heat quickly and stir is up. The hot malted liquid is called wort. The boil usually lasts about 60 minutes, during which time you will add some flavor and bitterness via the hops.

Malty goodness

Mid brew reading

4. Add hops – Depending on the beer, there will be different types and amounts of hops used. This particular beer used Amarillo hopes. The first round goes in after a few minutes of cooking the malt – these are the flavor hops. More hops are added close to the end of the boil, the aroma hops, that don’t really affect the bitterness of the beer, but add nice floral hoppy aroma to the finished product. I never knew it about myself until brewing some Pale Ale with my friend, but I’m quite the hop fan. This beer is nicely balanced, but I think the next brew will head back towards the heavy hop additions.

Hops go in

Boiling away

5. Cool the wort – You want to cool the hot wort as quickly as possible. Our next step will be to add the yeast, but anything too hot will kill the yeast off immediately. The goal is to get the wort down to below 80 degrees, and to do it fast. There are a ton of wort chilling devises out there, and likely one day I will have one, but at this point I just put it in a giant ice bath and added more ice as it melted. It took about 30-35 minutes to get the temp down. You want to chill quickly to avoid any possible bacterial infections at this vulnerable stage.

Ice Bath

6. Add yeast – Once the temp is down, transfer the cooled wort to your fermenting container – I just use a five gallon bucket, a larger one would be ideal, but these are cheap. You can now pitch (add) your yeast to the brew and seal it up. The Williams kit comes with Wyeast activator pack yeast. A day or so before brewing, you pop an interior pouch inside the bigger bag of yeast that feeds the yeast and gets them all excited for the upcoming feast. Each packet contains over 1 billion yeast. Go get ‘em guys!

7. Seal, lock, ferment – Time to seal the fermenter, and add an airlock. The airlock allows CO2 produced from yeast eating the sugar to escape the container without anything else getting back it. Plus it’s cool to hear the airlock bubble away, knowing those billions of yeasties are converting all that sugary malt into alcohol.

8. Wait – one of the hardest parts of the process. If you were hardcore, you would be taking hydrometer readings of the chilled wort, and then later on to determine the specific gravity and alcohol content of the beer. But at the end of the day, does it really matter what the alcohol content by volume of your homebrew is? If you do everything basically right, it should be right around the level it was supposed to be (profound, I know). You’ll know if it’s high or low when you drink it after all. For me, I just wait. About 12 days to two weeks is good. Sure, without taking the readings, I don’t know 100% that fermentation is 100% complete, but I’m fairly confident it is. I also didn’t bother transferring to a secondary fermenter which would help the final product be a bit more clear. But again, who cares if your homebrew is perfectly clear?

9. Crash – After you’ve waited out fermentation, you want to chill the beer down to serving temp, or around 40 degrees. This will help any remaining suspended particles settle before the final transfer.

10. Keg – at this point you can bottle or keg your beer. I had planned to bottle originally, and had many nice friends saving their beer bottles for me. But thanks to another friend (turns out I’m lucky to have rad friends with cool hobbies to help me out) I was able to borrow a keg setup and bypassed the whole messy bottling step. After the beer is fully fermented and crashed, transfer via siphon to the clean and sanitized keg.

11. Carbonate – There are a couple of ways to do this. We could have mixed a sugar solution into the fermented beer before transferring it to the keg and let it naturally carbonate, which can take a few weeks, or you can force carbonate using CO2. Again, when force carbonating there are a few options – crank the gas up, shake the keg, let it settle, shake again, repeat etc. until well carbonated - or set the gas to the right serving level and leave it alone for a week or so. I do something in between these – shake a little gas in, let it sit, shake once or twice more, set the gas to around 10-12 psi and leave it alone for a few days. As it conditions in the keg, it will just get better and better.

12. Drink and Enjoy! – This part is pretty self explanatory, easy, and quite rewarding. You'll need to adjust the pressure on the gas for serving. For this brew, with my gas in the fridge with the keg, I've found a low pressure (around 7 psi) produces a nice beer with good head retention without excess foaming.

I left out some nitty-gritty details here and there, but overall, while the process takes time, it’s really not that difficult. I’m sure you could work harder at it, and in some ways I probably will as I take on new recipes etc. but overall, just jump in there, enjoy the process and relish in your good works.

Ideally, serve in Grandpa's old gold-rim glasses

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Breakfast Fun

We like pancakes and we like playing with our food.

Plus I wanted to test mobile publishing to Blogger.

- mobile update

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Impromptu Pizza Night

I like when dinner comes together easily. That transition from wondering what the heck to make and eat, to a ha! Last night was one of those nights. I was putting together the shopping list and menu for the week and could not decide what to make that night. Nothing was sounding good. Because of the diet restrictions for J, we have not had much bread or cheese in our lives lately, which of course is missed. J has been doing so well that we have decided to start slowly introducing these things back into his diet, and happily it has been going very well. We have found that he does better with natural, local sourdough than commercial yeast, so we will be sticking to that - which is fine with us.

So after struggling to decide what to make, my a ha moment came - pizza! I had a sourdough dough ball in the freezer, tomatoes and basil in the garden, and just enough cheese in the fridge to pull it all together. I set the dough out to defrost, picked some pizza perfect San Marzano tomatoes, a bunch of basil, and got to it.

The sauce was simple, and uncooked. I chopped a few cloves of garlic in the food processor, added about 2-3 cups of chopped tomatoes, a handful of basil, some oregano and rosemary (all the produce came from the garden). Pulse it together for a few seconds with a pinch or two of salt and you're good to go. Fresh, bright and delicious.

I only had a small amount of mozzarella on hand, so we relied heavily on some goat's milk pecorino which was nutty and rich and a perfect foil to the sweet tomatoes.

Clearly I am not too concerned about perfectly round pizzas. I went low stress, just slap them together, throw them on a hot hot hot baking stone (preheat your oven as hot as it will get for at least 30 minutes). The sourdough crust was good - light, with a little crisp and some airyness. It's not a well charred crust like pizza from a wood fired oven (still on the list of things I covet - and will one day make) but for an impromptu pizza night with the family, it couldn't get much better.

The fun thing about pizza night is that each pizza takes time, they come out of the oven about every ten minutes which is just enough time to pull the previous pie out, cut it up so everyone has a slice and hang out together having fun. By the time you finish your slice, the next pizza is ready. It's always a great way for us to spend some silly time playing and eating with the kids. Now that J is handling some sourdough and cheese, we will definitely be having more pizza night picnics. How could you not want to with this is how your kids react?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

2 Fun Cakes for 1 Fabulous 4 Year Old

My big girl is growing up. She is a wonderful, sweet, brilliant, and good little girl and I love her so much. And she deserves wonderful cakes for her birthday. This year we split the parties up to keep things manageable. On her actual birthday, which fell midweek, we had all of the family over.

Since most of both of our families live in the area (We MISS you D, M, and E!!!!) our house is just too small to host the family and H's friends together. We did the friend party, which we tried to keep fairly small too, on the weekend for convenience. It also made it easier for all of us to visit with each other during the parties, plus the added bonus - H gets two parties.

There was no particular theme to the family party, just Happy Birthday! to our girl. She specifically asked for a chocolate cake with vanilla frosting and rainbow sprinkles. So that is (of course) what she got. I made the basic chocolate layer cake recipe from the America's Test Kitchen Best Recipes cookbook, which is dense and delicious.

For a simple, and not oppressively sweet, frosting, I made a stabilized whipped cream and used it in between the layers and rusticly swirled on top. And per H's request, the whole thing got a playful dusting of rainbow sprinkles. I thought it ended up as a nice, sophisticated, and tasty cake for a 4 year old.

The friend party had a rainbow theme, so of course I had to play that up in the cake. Quite a while ago I ran across the rainbow cake on Omnomicon and ended up using that as inspiration for our cake. I unfortunately ran short on time and ended up using two packages of white cake mix (for shame!), but I would again recommend the America's Test Kitchen, basic white cake recipe if you have more planning time.

The process is pretty easy. I mixed up both mixes together and then separated the batter into six bowls. Each was colored with gel food colorings. The gel coloring is key. The liquid is too weak and you would end up having to add so much to get the rich colors that it would be more chemical than cake.

Once you have your rainbow of batters ready to go, start with one of the two cake pans and pour the first three colors (Red, Orange, Yellow) into the center of the pan. Pour half of the red into the center of the pan, then half of the orange right on top of the red, and then half of the yellow right on top of the orange. As you pour each color, the one below will spread out and you'll have concentric circles of color.

After you pour the first three colors in, start the other pan going in the opposite direction (Purple, Blue, Green). You end up seeing more of the center color when baked , so it's nice to switch the order up to have a good color spread. It also helps to start the second pan after only doing three in the first pan so that the two pans end up with the same amount of batter in case your guess at "half" was a bit off. Finish off both pans with the colors in the order (or reverse order) of the rainbow, then bake away. I used two mixes, but only two pans, so it took longer than the box direction to bake all the way through. Just bake until a cake tester comes out clean.

After the cakes cool, put a very thin layer of frosting on the cake. This is going to help the fondant stay on. What? Did you say fondant? Yes, I finally tried to make some fondant and get all schmancy. As you can tell, it didn't come out as perfectly as I had envisioned (Damn you, Ace of Cakes, for making this look so easy!) but it was still fun.

I used this Marshmallow Fondant recipe, because it is pretty easy to make, work with and it doesn't taste quite as horrible as most fondants. Follow the instruction, and keep them wrapped in the fridge until you are ready to use them. Take your time and don't roll it too thin or it will tear when you are working with it. I got the whole cake covered at one point but it looked so bad I had to rip it all off, toss it, and start over.

I will likely give the marshmallow fondant another try, but get started earlier in the day so I am not so rushed. It is clearly one of those things that you can tell will get much easier each time you do it. Both cakes were a hit with H, which of course is the whole point!

Monday, July 27, 2009

It's About Time - Back to Daring Bakers

This summer has been crazy! Weddings, baby showers, new family members, crazy hot, a new swing set for the kids, did I mention - crazy hot? So busy in fact, that I missed last month's Daring Bakers' challenge.

I almost missed this month's challenge too. I finally made it at about 9 pm on reveal day (that would be tonight). Part of the reason for late night baking is that my son is going through a tough time in terms of what he can eat and is on a pretty restrictive diet. It seems to be helping, but I'll admit it's not a ton of fun: no dairy, no sugar, and no yeast. Yikes! That's rough in our house, but worth it to see him doing better. So I bake my creamy, sugary Daring Baker challenges (aka poison to my son) at night so as not to hurt his feelings by refusing to let him lick the bowl.

The July Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

Unfortunately I did not have time to get to the marshmallow cookies, but mark my word, I will blog those in the future. Homemade marshmallow has been on my To Bake list for a very long time.

The Milan Cookies come together very quickly, although as of this post, my chocolate has still not firmed up as much as I would like. I'm hoping as they sit, it will. Also, these cookies are definitely different than the Milano cookies you may be expecting. To my taste, these were a bit too egg-whitey. That may just have been my rushing through the recipe and the heat in my kitchen. (Did I mention it's always hot here?) but they weren't quite what I was hoping for.

The crushed, roasted and salted pistachios definitely make the cookies something special. The salty crunch they add is key.

Milan Cookies
Recipe courtesy Gale Gand, from Food Network.

Prep Time: 20 min
Inactive Prep Time: 0 min
Cook Time: 1 hr 0 min
Serves: about 3 dozen cookies
• 12 tablespoons (170grams/ 6 oz) unsalted butter, softened
• 2 1/2 cups (312.5 grams/ 11.02 oz) powdered sugar
• 7/8 cup egg whites (from about 6 eggs)
• 2 tablespoons vanilla extract
• 2 tablespoons lemon extract
• 1 1/2 cups (187.5grams/ 6.61 oz) all purpose flour
• Cookie filling, recipe follows
Cookie filling:
• 1/2 cup heavy cream
• 8 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
• 1 orange, zested

1. In a mixer with paddle attachment cream the butter and the sugar.
2. Add the egg whites gradually and then mix in the vanilla and lemon extracts.
3. Add the flour and mix until just well mixed.
4. With a small (1/4-inch) plain tip, pipe 1-inch sections of batter onto a parchment-lined sheet pan, spacing them 2 inches apart as they spread.
5. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 10 minutes or until light golden brown around the edges. Let cool on the pan.
6. While waiting for the cookies to cool, in a small saucepan over medium flame, scald cream.
7. Pour hot cream over chocolate in a bowl, whisk to melt chocolate, add zest and blend well.
8. Set aside to cool (the mixture will thicken as it cools).
9. Spread a thin amount of the filling onto the flat side of a cookie while the filling is still soft and press the flat side of a second cookie on top.
10. Repeat with the remainder of the cookies.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Sourdough Success!

I finally made the move into sourdough. I wanted to start as naturally as possible, so my culture was developed from only flour and water and the natural yeasties in the air. I developed the culture/starter using the method Susan at Wild Yeast has shared and in fact used her bread recipe as the first one to try. I started the culture last week, and fed it diligently twice a day until it was doubling in 4 hours or less. I then lowered the amount of culture used in each feeding and it still doubled in 4 hours, so I felt it was safe to give it a go.

The dough felt a little different while working with it, and I will admit that at times I didn't think it was rising enough. I was worried that I had what looked like at active starter but would end up with hockey puck bread anyway. Lo and behold, the oven spring on this bread was fantastic! I forgot to turn the heat down after putting the loaves in the oven, so they got pretty dark, but the taste was still wonderful. Pleasant crumb structure, slight sour tang. Overall, a success.

Next time I will leave the loaves in the oven with the door cracked open like Susan suggests. This time I felt I had to get them out since they were getting so dark. Plus, it's tough to leave the oven open and on when it's 101 degrees outside. I also think they would benefit from spending the night in the fridge after being shaped and before baking. This will bring out a little more of the sour flavor. The sourness should also increase as my starter ages.

It was a fun process and much less intimidating than I thought it would be. I had read a lot about the process from all the great bakers who contribute to The Fresh Loaf and may have information overloaded a bit. In the end, I just sort of fed it as regularly as possible, tried to keep it going, and built it up to the amount I needed for the first bake. I think the culture and starter are actually quite forgiving.

I am looking forward to trying the whole new world of recipes that are opened up to me now that I have an active and viable starter. In addition to all the loaves of bread, we'll be trying sourdough pancakes, sourdough english muffins.... Mmmmmmmm, carbs.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How Does Your Garden Grow?

The squash is off and running. We are harvesting early cherry tomatoes, with many greens coming in behind. I am especially excited about the San Marzanos. With the basil coming up too, we are in store for some great pizzas.

We have several squash taking off right now, a pickling cucumber, some broccoli, lettuce still going, lots and lots of beets that need to be eaten, about 8-10 different peppers and a crop of herbs. We also have a pumpkin going nuts on the other side of the yard. Hopefully the kids will be able to carve their own pumpkins for Halloween.

I will try to get some in progress shots of the garden - and more harvest shots as well. I still have a lot of work to do, and some trellises to build. It is a fun adventure, with delicious rewards.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Daring Dough (actually, it was quite easy)

The Daring Bakers did it again. They have challenged me to make something that I ended up really enjoying, but never would have attempted on my own. This is why I love being a Daring Baker - I get forced out of my comfort zone, and often, like with this challenge, find out what appears to be a horrible daunting task is quite easy.

The May Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Linda of make life sweeter! and Courtney of Coco Cooks. They chose Apple Strudel from the recipe book Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague by Rick Rodgers.

Since apples are no longer in prime season here, I opted to do a different filling. I used what I had in the house - which is always a bonus - and ended up with a delicious strudel filling inside a crispy, crackly crust.

The idea of making strudel dough was a bit frieghtening when I first learned of this month's challenge. It is a simple dough that gets pulled VERY thin and then wrapped around the filling and baked. I'm talking phyllo thin here. There are definite similarities between the two doughs and it makes me want to find a good phyllo recipe and give that a try. When making strudel at home, many recipes in fact call for using frozen phyllo sheets, but after this month's challenge, I am going to be a regular "from scratch" strudel maker.

I told you it was thin. The dough is amazingly supple and forgiving however. Easy to work with.

For my filling I whipped together cream cheese, almond paste, and finely chopped dark chocolate in the stand mixer (this could easily be done by hand if you let the ingredients come to room temp). I didn't really measure anything. I just threw it all in together, gave it a taste, tossed in a bit more chocolate and called it a strudel. The fun thing about this recipe is that the dough can be filled with just about anything - sweet or savory. I thought about using some organic peaches with the almond paste, but with those I worried they may be a bit too wet. I still may try it, tossing the chopped peaches with a bit of flour and/or cornstarch to bind them up a bit.

I'm already thinking about new filling and entire strudel dinners (savory followed by sweet). I know it's a bit cheesy but who cares? this was good.

I'm going to post the whole recipe as given to us by the Daring Bakers. This includes the apple filling to make a more traditional Apple Strudel. Of course, you can swap out the filling (as I did) with anything that strikes your fancy, follow the dough and assembly directions and you're good to go.

Apple strudel
from “Kaffeehaus – Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague” by Rick Rodgers

2 tablespoons (30 ml) golden rum
3 tablespoons (45 ml) raisins
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (80 g) sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick / 115 g) unsalted butter, melted, divided
1 1/2 cups (350 ml) fresh bread crumbs
strudel dough (recipe below)
1/2 cup (120 ml, about 60 g) coarsely chopped walnuts
2 pounds (900 g) tart cooking apples, peeled, cored and cut into ¼ inch-thick slices (use apples that hold their shape during baking)

1. Mix the rum and raisins in a bowl. Mix the cinnamon and sugar in another bowl.

2. Heat 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium-high. Add the breadcrumbs and cook whilst stirring until golden and toasted. This will take about 3 minutes. Let it cool completely.

3. Put the rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Line a large baking sheet with baking paper (parchment paper). Make the strudel dough as described below. Spread about 3 tablespoons of the remaining melted butter over the dough using your hands (a bristle brush could tear the dough, you could use a special feather pastry brush instead of your hands). Sprinkle the buttered dough with the bread crumbs. Spread the walnuts about 3 inches (8 cm) from the short edge of the dough in a 6-inch-(15cm)-wide strip. Mix the apples with the raisins (including the rum), and the cinnamon sugar. Spread the mixture over the walnuts.

4. Fold the short end of the dough onto the filling. Lift the tablecloth at the short end of the dough so that the strudel rolls onto itself. Transfer the strudel to the prepared baking sheet by lifting it. Curve it into a horseshoe to fit. Tuck the ends under the strudel. Brush the top with the remaining melted butter.

5. Bake the strudel for about 30 minutes or until it is deep golden brown. Cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing. Use a serrated knife and serve either warm or at room temperature. It is best on the day it is baked.

The dough gets wrapped on a flour lined cloth so it doesn't stick and tear

The wrapped strudel ready for the oven.

Strudel dough
from “Kaffeehaus – Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest and Prague” by Rick Rodgers

1 1/3 cups (200 g) unbleached flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
7 tablespoons (105 ml) water, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons (30 ml) vegetable oil, plus additional for coating the dough
1/2 teaspoon cider vinegar

1. Combine the flour and salt in a stand-mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix the water, oil and vinegar in a measuring cup. Add the water/oil mixture to the flour with the mixer on low speed. You will get a soft dough. Make sure it is not too dry, add a little more water if necessary.
Take the dough out of the mixer. Change to the dough hook. Put the dough ball back in the mixer. Let the dough knead on medium until you get a soft dough ball with a somewhat rough surface.

2. Take the dough out of the mixer and continue kneading by hand on an unfloured work surface. Knead for about 2 minutes. Pick up the dough and throw it down hard onto your working surface occasionally.
Shape the dough into a ball and transfer it to a plate. Oil the top of the dough ball lightly. Cover the ball tightly with plastic wrap. Allow to stand for 30-90 minutes (longer is better).

3. It would be best if you have a work area that you can walk around on all sides like a 36 inch (90 cm) round table or a work surface of 23 x 38 inches (60 x 100 cm). Cover your working area with table cloth, dust it with flour and rub it into the fabric. Put your dough ball in the middle and roll it out as much as you can.
Pick the dough up by holding it by an edge. This way the weight of the dough and gravity can help stretching it as it hangs. Using the back of your hands to gently stretch and pull the dough. You can use your forearms to support it.

4. The dough will become too large to hold. Put it on your work surface. Leave the thicker edge of the dough to hang over the edge of the table. Place your hands underneath the dough and stretch and pull the dough thinner using the backs of your hands. Stretch and pull the dough until it's about 2 feet (60 cm) wide and 3 feet (90 cm) long, it will be tissue-thin by this time. Cut away the thick dough around the edges with scissors. The dough is now ready to be filled.

The stretched dough is thin enough to read the recipe through.