Monday, July 6, 2009

At last a bit of baking

Since I left my house in Avignon on the 27th, I've barely cooked. What with the numerous errands at the French family services (aka CAF) and Sécu, touring guests around the Lubéron, the Pont du Gard, and to the cheesemaker's, and more housekeeping for the switch of renters this Saturday, cooking has just not been on the top of my list. That said, when it is 35C outdoors (over 90F), food, particularly cooked food isn't that appealing.

When I switched homes on the 27th, I arrived with some odd perishables, and pantry basics. I turned some old bananas that had defrosted in my freezer during its move, turned raw milk, and the basics for baking into banana bread. A bit heavy, but quite edible, this served as my breakfast and our snack food for the week. Otherwise, salads, left-overs, a couple of cookies, and lots of water dominated my diet.

Today, a day after bring the boys to the airport to fly to the States to see my mother, I slept in and contemplated the house, the fridge, my culinary state.

With the heat outside, bread baking is not an easy option. In my Avignon house, I've a large and very efficient fridge (though my renters chose to up the intensity of its chilling power, and left me an igloo to defrost Saturday!?), and I'd succeeded in making my no-knead bread by putting the second rise in the fridge to limit the acidic flavors. Here at the mas however, I've neither the oven, nor the fridge... bread is desired, but I'm not too keen on attempting it in such poor conditions. Ah well, an experiment for next week. Ice is always an option, right? Whoops, there's only one ice tray in the freezer. Ice is a relative option.

So, the banana bread consumed, I decided to make use of what was left of my turned milk and started out by making some good old-fashioned biscuits this morning. Yum! they're good. Sour milk biscuits with baking soda. I blended in some butter, a bit of palm oil and salt with the 65grade organic baking flour (what a baker would typically use for a baguette here, the closest you come to all-purpose).

My father was from Kentucky, and I've some of the most delectable taste memories that involve sour milk biscuits: flaky, not too high, perfect golden topped white rounds. Cora-Mae, the peaches-n-cream complexioned ball of short softness from across the river in Virginia, was my father's family cook throughout his childhood and mine. As old as my grandmother, she welcomed us to her kitchen (our favorite place) when my brother and I visited the grandparents in Louisville. Every morning, we had her biscuits for breakfast -- toasted, with butter melted on top, alongside sausage and eggs made to order. Goodness, were we spoiled! On many a trip we begged for a stash of those biscuits to bring home to New York with us. And Cora-Mae never disappointed!

Ever since, the art of biscuit making has been honed and tested by my brother and myself. He being the scientist, all is carefully measured, notes of each test are jotted down, and he has been the bearer of the perfect recipe for a good while now. Myself, I've read Shirley Corriher's discussion on biscuits, tried different flours, different recipes, different tricks, and now, I just wing it. I believe I must have lived a life centuries ago and been one of those old grandmas who never measures, as now, I continually test my visual and textural senses when baking, far more than my mathematical skills.

To each his own.

As such, I really can't convey to you the exact recipe I used this morning. Approximately 3 cups of flour with perhaps a 1/4 cup each of palm oil and butter, a good pinch of salt, a teaspoon of baking soda. I worked the fat in with my fingers, and then just moistened with my sour milk. Once moistened, I then put rounded lumps on my baking sheet, the size of two soup spoons or so, tapping my hands in flour to work more easily, and baked them at 200C (385F) for a half hour in the tiny apartment size oven of JP. In my own oven, I'm sure the cooking time could have been halved. However, I've made it a habit to stick nearby when I bake, to keep an eye and my nose alert to the "done" signals. Thus, success.

Lunch was salads and quiche. Can't go wrong there, right? a few zucchini, an onion or two, bacon, eggs, milk and grated emmental cheese, in my whole wheat crust and we're all set.

The only problem with baking in the summer, is heating an already warm house... air conditioning not being de rigueur here. Oh well. Tonight it will cool down again, and we'll open all the windows. Perfection is unattainable, I seek it not.

And oh dear, my carrot cake experiment was far less successful. Perhaps I should have added a third egg?

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