The Shrinking Bread Saga Part II

Last week I wrote about going to a bakery and seeing artisan bread being sold by the half loaf for $5.50. An $11.00 loaf of bread? Preposterous! A while back, my friend Ellie lent me her book “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” and suddenly I was motivated to read it and make a loaf or two for myself.

I followed the instructions which were ridiculously simple. Warm three cups water to 110⁰; add 1½ tablespoons each rapid-rise yeast and kosher salt, mix in 6½ cups of all-purpose flour, let rise until double, refrigerate for at least one day and up to fourteen (it’s better with age). No kneading required! When it’s time to bake, pull off a chunk, shape into a loaf and rise for thirty minutes. While the dough rises, put a pizza stone and a small baking dish into a 450⁰ oven. When the loaf is done rising, score the top, put a cup of water into the baking dish to make the oven steam, pop the dough onto the pizza stone and bake for 40 minutes. That’s all!

I anxiously awaited my first loaf and resisted my urge to open the oven door every five minutes to peek, and I did it only twice. I knew the bread was almost finished baking when the kitchen exploded with an intoxicating aroma. Off went the timer at forty minutes and when I opened the door I was filled with joy. The bread did indeed look like artisan bread, of the kind found at fancy bakeries. The crust was a crispy golden brown. Would it taste as good as it looked?

While the loaf was still warm, I cut the first slice and smeared it with Irish butter. Something indescribably lovely came with the experience – the bite had a feeling of completeness. The bread’s appearance, warmth and aroma along with a feeling of accomplishment created an almost spiritual experience. I certainly never felt that when I went to a bakery, brought a loaf home and toasted it. This E-Z homemade artisan bread was better than I ever imagined and took almost no effort.

Because I was still shell – shocked about an $11.00 loaf of bread, I calculated the cost. The batch of dough made enough for two big loaves and the flour, yeast and salt for each was only $1.02 (I bought a pound of yeast at the US Chef’s store for only $5.59). I ate the entire loaf of bread with wild abandon in less than 24 hours and couldn’t wait to make it again. Maybe I should make half loaves since I obviously have little restraint!

The Shrinking Bread Saga

Last week I went to a bakery in Bend and was shocked to see artisan bread being sold by the half loaf. The bread was about the same price I paid for a whole loaf a couple of years ago. We’ve all witnessed the rising cost of food in the past year but this seemed to punctuate the seriousness of the problem. I have heard the term “shrinkflation” which means smaller sizes for about the same price and this was a perfect example.

This price increase had a profound effect on me and for the next several days I was haunted by the $5.50 half loaf of bread. I wondered how far “shrinkflation” could go. Ten dollars in 2025? Then I remembered a book that my friend Ellie lent me several months ago “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day”. Now I felt motivated to read it, so I did. I learned that I could greatly simplify the bread making process. The basic idea is to make a big batch of no-knead dough, keep it in the refrigerator and when I want to bake, pull off a chunk, shape a loaf and pop it in the oven. The longer the bread sits in the fridge, the more flavor it accumulates, apparently much like sourdough. Not only will I get an almost effortless loaf of bread, the kitchen will fill up with a lovely aroma. The book has a master recipe that opens the door to many variations.

I followed the instructions and whipped up a batch. It’s presently sitting in the fridge and I am going to play with it this week. Play, I’m so excited! I will let you know how it goes. Who knows, I just may end up being thankful to that $5.50 half loaf to get me jump-started on E-Z bread baking. I look forward to warm bread smeared in butter and honey with a cup of Earl Grey (who is Earl Grey??) tea at 4:00 in the afternoon. Ah, life is good.

Meanwhile, the accountant in me kicks in and I want to calculate the cost. The basic recipe uses only flour, yeast, salt and water. I can buy a 25lb bag of Gold Medal flour for $24.39 and properly store it in five gallon food grade plastic buckets with airtight lids. The recipe called for six and a half cups of flour and that weighs 27 ounces. The flour is about six cents an ounce, so the flour for a couple of loaves is $1.62. I’m out of room so I will calculate the cost of the salt and yeast next week. I may even calculate the cost for half a loaf of bread. Stay tuned!

Rainbow Food

One chilly morning last week I drove to Madras with a friend. The day was sunny and as crisp as crisp could be. A soft blanket of quiet frost covered the earth. The frost captured the sun’s light in millions of tiny sparkling beads scattered across the landscape. The sky was an extraordinary cross between periwinkle blue and purple. I inhaled deeply and took it all in.

We climbed a hill and when we rounded a corner, a huge sea of fog opened up in front of us. The landscape really did look like the sea, or at least I pretended that was the case. Our car rolled down the hill and into the sea-fog we went. As we reached flat ground, the fog started to lift and the sun shone through in bright patches. Suddenly we spotted something neither one of us had ever seen: a series of five, maybe seven rainbows suspended in the fog, all barely discernible. They were sitting in a large pasture and did not look anything like the usual rainbows because they were wider with fainter colors. They were short, just slightly higher than the trees and wispy, ephemeral. But more than the appearance to the physical eye, they had a soothing presence, as if we were looking at live beings, angels maybe. They seemed to talk, or gave us the impression they were. If peace had a look, this would be it. Silence too. Comfort, definitely. I took it all in and felt nourished.

As I tried to understand what I was seeing, I asked my friend if she felt the rainbows too. She did! Together we tried to find the words to describe this mysterious presence. Comparing notes together about this profound event was sheer delight. Reality check! No, I wasn’t crazy after all. Or, if I was then she was too.

Over the following days I contemplated the idea of spiritual nourishment and the words “soul food” came to mind. It’s so easy to think of food as something to eat yet nourishment comes in so many different forms. Friendship is one, connection another. Beauty definitely nourishes. So do joy, laughter, fun and play. Another big one is gratitude. Being thankful is like medicine; gratitude can transform a sour mood into a happy one almost instantly. Surprises nourish too; they keep life from becoming too routine and dull. Generosity and help in any form – those are the best!

Even challenges can be a form of nourishment because they force us to expand and grow into spectacular rainbows. The New Year is already upon us. I wish everyone a year filled with supreme good fortune and more!

The Recipe Present

A while back, Beverly and Jack Hollen of Mountain View California sent me a wonderful present – a handwritten recipe! The recipe arrived in a beautiful card accompanied by notes written by both Beverly and Jack. My heart felt truly warmed by this seemingly small yet significant gift. I appreciated their efforts to share a piece of their culinary world. Handwritten communications convey a warmth that just doesn’t come across in a world dominated by screens and keyboards. The tactile experience of getting a stamped letter in the mail is much more memorable than opening an email with an attachment. The element of surprise in the mailbox is nice too.

The recipe was for Mustard Sauce. A sauce can elevate a meal from “ho-hum” to “Wow, this is really great”! Beverly mentioned that the mustard sauce was for ham. But after I made it, the possibilities expanded. The sauce was sweet and sour, only better than any sweet and sour sauce I had ever tasted because it had an extra layer of flavor. Sweet and sour can go with almost anything: meatballs and meatloaf, shrimp, chicken and steamed vegetables to name a few. I sautéed a few prawns, steamed some peas and put all that on a bed of smoked basmati rice then drowned it with the sauce. This combination was wickedly good and it only took about ten minutes, maybe less, to make.

Mustard Sauce

One cup Campbell’s Consommé (do NOT substitute beef broth)
½ cup sugar
½ cup French’s yellow mustard
1 egg

Mix all the ingredients in a double boiler and whisk constantly until thickened. I used the whole can of consommé. The first time around I got side-tracked and forgot to keep whisking. The egg solidified and there were little pieces of scrambled egg floating in the sauce. That was not the right look! So I had to get out my immersion blender which added an unnecessary step.

In this culture where “bigger is better” and “more, more, more” it is easy to think that a small gesture such as a handwritten recipe doesn’t amount to much. But sometimes small things can have a huge impact. On the surface, a recipe looks like a piece of paper. But it translates into a delicious culinary experience, especially if the recipe has been handed down for generations. Then the recipe comes with the feeling of duration, because it withstood the test of time. I love splattered recipes with crossed out words and doodles in the margins. A recipe is a present that doesn’t cost anything. Who was it that said “Sometimes the best things in life are free”? Thank you, Beverly and Jack for sharing this awesome yuletide present with our readers.

The Cooking Lesson

Recently I read some alarming statistics about child and adult obesity. As of 2023, in the United States 19% of children and adolescents and 41.9% of adults are obese. Really? Why? There are many reasons but the biggest one I see is that many people don’t know how to cook or create a pantry. Lack of time and the overabundance of fast and processed foods make it way too easy to grab and go. Also, television shows that feature celebrity chefs who have sophisticated culinary skills probably intimidate a lot of people. Viewers may think “This is way too complicated, thanks but no thanks”!

If I had one wish it would be that gardening, cooking, baking and food preservation would be taught in school from K through 12. Were my wish to come true, we’d have a much healthier population. Well prepared food contributes enormously to a person’s well-being so I imagine people would be happier too.

Last week I was thrilled when my friend Randall invited me to watch him give a cooking lesson to his seven year old son Zaimon. They were making sweet and sour chicken and rice. When I arrived, I perched on a bar stool and watched the two of them make the sauce. Randall explained to Zaimon that cooking was like putting a puzzle together and it used a lot of math. Four tablespoons equals ¼ cup, two ¼ cups equal ½ cup and so on. He patiently helped Zaimon read the recipe and match the measurements with the measuring spoons and cups. He gave him little tips such as pack the brown sugar into the cup and tap the ketchup bottle on the counter to make it come out. The recipe called for honey and they didn’t have any so they substituted molasses. I could see that Zaimon gained self-confidence from his new found skill. 

When the sauce was done, they poured it over a pan of chicken legs and popped it in the oven. The rice went into the rice cooker and I cut up some peas and broccoli and steamed them. The end result was so delicious that I had three helpings; I thought about a fourth but said no. When we were finished, we got up and danced in the living room along with the German shepherd. A good time was had by all! Perhaps Zaimon and Randall could have their own cooking show and demonstrate to the world that good food can be had by everyone, including folks who don’t know how to cook  . . . yet. Maybe a celebrity chef or two would watch it and want to be a guest. Who knows? Anything is possible.

Simplicity Rules

On Sunday night, I watched a segment on 60 Minutes about the marriage of artificial intelligence and quantum computing. I’ve known about both technologies because I read the MIT Technology Review, an excellent source for staying informed about our fast paced world. Each issue delves into a new technology’s impacts from a historical, scientific, demographic, educational, political, economic, sociological, environmental, and cultural perspective. I’ve anticipated the convergence of AI and QC for a long time, but the 60 Minutes episode heightened my awareness to a new level. What happens when these two huge technologies marry? Hold on! Whoa!!!

Now you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with food and cooking. After the program ended I sat in my chair and stared at the wall glazed over like a zombie. I contemplated the dizzying pace of societal change and a growing complexity of life that seems to have no end in sight. Then I remembered one of my most deeply held values: simplicity. You already know how much I love simplicity – every recipe I write about has minimal ingredients, requires little cleanup and takes only thirty minutes or less. Simplicity rules!

I often read recipes and re-write them in my head to eliminate unnecessary steps and stuff to wash. I sometimes wonder “What on earth are these cooks thinking?” They want me to use every pot, pan, and utensil in the kitchen. When I’m finished, I will be knee-deep in things to wash, dry and put away. I will likely feel very crabby and ask myself why I even made This Thing. Why follow a recipe exactly just because it said so? Break free from all the recipe shoulds and musts. Cooking should be enjoyable, not a chore that leaves our kitchens looking like a massive tornado just ripped through it.

When I read a recipe, I look for ways to simplify it and ask “Do I really need three bowls to mix this?” Can I combine steps and use only one bowl? Is there a shortcut that won’t compromise the recipe’s integrity? For example, my beau James taught me that it’s not always necessary to sauté an onion before adding it to a recipe. The onion usually cooks enough, has plenty of flavor, and a delightful crunch. I would have never thought to question this step. After all, my mother and grandmother and probably my great grandmother always did it that way.

Sometimes the most satisfying meals are the ones cooked with a sprinkle of ease and a dash of freedom. Do what feels good and eliminate the fluff. And who knows, after AI and QC marry, the best meals just may be the ones cooked by your robot.

Bread Pudding Bliss

Recently I was a passenger in the car with my friend Terry and we chatted about food. Right off the bat, she rattled off a recipe for bread pudding which I wrote down. The simple dessert sounded delicious with a comfort food feel. Thanksgiving was fast approaching and I wanted to bring a dessert but this wasn’t fancy enough. How could I fix it up to make it suitable for a celebration?

A few days later I visited my friend Ellie and the topic of Thanksgiving came up. I told her that I planned to make bread pudding. Without missing a beat she said “I have a recipe for an Irish Whiskey sauce that would be lovely on that”. What on earth prompted her to answer an unasked question? I absolutely love it when my problems get solved without any effort from me – it’s like magic!! Abracadabra! Poof!! That certainly makes life easy, doesn’t it? Now my humble dessert could get dressed up and attend a special occasion dinner. Another unasked question that Ellie answered was “What kind of bread do I use”? She just happened to blurt out that French bread was the best kind, even though the recipe is known to work with any kind of leftover bread, particularly artisanal breads.

Bread Pudding

4 – 6 cups semi-dry bread, shredded
2 cups milk
1 cube butter
½ cup sugar
2 eggs
1 ½ tsp vanilla
1 tbsp cinnamon
Pinch of salt
Dried fruit: raisins, figs, dates, cherries, etc.

Preheat the oven to 350⁰. Grease a baking dish and use it to mix the bread and the dried fruit. In a saucepan, scald the milk then add the butter. Let it melt then whisk in the sugar, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt. Pour the mixture over the bread. Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes until the bread looks crunchy, the custard bubbles away on the edges, and the kitchen fills with an intoxicating aroma. Eat it right away because the top gets soggy the longer it sits.

Irish Whiskey Sauce

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
½ cup sugar
7 egg yolks
¼ cup Irish Whiskey (bourbon or rum will work too)

Boil the cream and milk in a double boiler, lower the heat to simmer, combine the sugar and egg yolks and gradually whisk in. Add the whiskey and stir constantly for 8-10 minutes. Recipe is from “The Southern Foodie”.

This dessert is a delightful combination of textures: a crisp, crunchy crust, a spongy custard-soaked interior, and a velvety sauce. Next time I’m going to add bacon and eat it for breakfast. And maybe lunch and dinner too. This makes my mouth water just writing about it!

A Feast of Gratitude

Lately the world is in a tragic turmoil and it’s so easy to get sucked into the cesspool of negativity. For a long time, I’ve known that thoughts, ideas, and beliefs are a type of nourishment, just like food. We often operate on “default mode” and unconsciously take in what is fed to us without much reflection or consideration. As the world grapples with challenges, I make a daily commitment to preserve the sanctity of my mental space and I disregard the news. That opens up “disc space” in my mind so I can appreciate the things that make me feel tranquil instead of focusing on all that is wrong in the world.

I don’t understand war. I can’t even kill a bug in the house just because it’s in the wrong place. I usually catch them and put them outside; after all, they are living beings just like we are. Oh dear, I digress! Well anyway, when I limit my exposure to the constant barrage of negativity, then the small moments that bring happiness, comfort, and connection leap out at me from just about everywhere. There are so many small, beautiful moments that unfold throughout the day.

The perfect antidote for negativity is to be grateful. Every day I train myself to see the abundance of small blessings that constantly surround me. I get immense fulfillment when I immerse myself in the richness of everyday life. We don’t need grand gestures or monumental events in order to feel thankful; the opportunities reside in the minutia of our daily existence. They are embedded in the aroma of a cup of tea, the lovely muted blues and violets of the hills in the wintertime, the laughter shared over a simple meal, the scent of a cake in the oven; these small gifts fill the heart to overflowing.

And you know what happens when the heart overflows with happiness? It automatically flows to other people. My friend says “Happiness becomes joy when shared”. Oh I am so idealistic! What if . . . everyone in the world noticed and appreciated the sweet little things in life? Their hearts would get big – just like The Grinch’s – and that fullness would be contagious. All this takes is a simple shift in perspective. That’s free! I sound like one of those Age of Aquarius people, don’t I? Oh well, why not? Someone’s gotta’ envision a better future if we want to see transformation in the world. Together, let’s do that!

So climb out of the cesspool and buy someone you don’t know a cup of coffee. Surprise! Create opportunities for gratitude. Who knows, someday the world just may thank you for that.

One Pan Chicken, Grapes and Vegetables

I love to go to the grocery store this time of year and see the beautiful cornucopias of squashes and pumpkins piled high in the produce section. Sometimes I just stand there and take it all in, as if I am a sponge absorbing a moment of divine rapture. I pretend that am in a still life painting, mesmerized by all the patterns, colors, and shapes. Of course I speculate about all the wonderful concoctions I could make with those pumpkins and squashes. Butternut squash soup! Julia Child’s pumpkin pie! Spaghetti squash with marinara sauce and parmesan cheese! And a recipe from for a “sheet pan dinner” of chicken, grapes, and vegetables. 

For those of you who don’t know yet, “sheet pan dinners” are definitely a “thing”. That is a meal where a cook roasts all the ingredients together on a single sheet pan and that translates to ease of preparation and minimal cleanup. You know how much I love simplicity! There are no pots and pans, and just a few utensils to wash. Most sheet pan recipes include a protein, vegetable and starch, all sprinkled with herbs and seasonings. The result is a flavorful and nutritionally balanced one-pan meal that you can whip together on a moment’s notice. These recipes are the perfect “un-recipes” because you can easily switch up the ingredients and use what you have on hand. Here goes:

One Pan Chicken, Grapes, and Veggies

2 pounds chicken drumsticks
1 acorn squash, cubed
8 cups green beans, trimmed
2 cups seedless grapes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup fresh thyme
½ teaspoon sea salt

Preheat the oven to 400⁰. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. Drizzle the olive oil over everything, season with thyme and salt and toss a few times. Roast it for 25-30 minutes or until the chicken cooks through.

I sometimes wonder why recipes are so specific. It seems to me that you could make this with any parts of the chicken – breasts, wings, or thighs. Why does it have to be just legs? The pieces might cook at different rates and you’d have to keep an eye on it. The recipe is better with fresh thyme but dried works well too. Don’t have green beans? Try zucchini or asparagus. The grapes are what make this recipe delicious. When biting into a warm, succulent grape the juice will explode all over the inside of your mouth with tender sweetness. I like to add small potatoes; the addition of starch makes the dish more complete and flavorful and I stay full much longer. Now I can be in a still life painting that also has great flavor! Yum!

The Bean Club

I was raised in the 1960s by a progressive mother who was a health food nut and a vegetarian long before most people knew what those were. She grew up during the depression and knew how to make low-cost staple ingredients like dried beans and lentils taste utterly delicious. We almost always had a pot of beans simmering away in a big copper kettle on the stove.

One time I stumbled across a bag of dried beans from a place called Rancho Gordo and they were outstanding, unlike any other beans I had ever eaten. I became curious about this “Rancho Gordo” and looked them up. The company was started by a gentleman named Steve Sando who was frustrated with the run-of-the-mill beans grown as commodity crops that are commonly available in grocery stores. His quest to find a better bean propelled him from a backyard garden experiment to warehouses, mail order, and a network of farmers across the Americas who grow heirloom beans that have flavor and history. Some varieties have been cultivated for hundreds of years. They are packed with mouthwatering flavor, have velvety textures and are so good that they can be eaten plain.

After looking at their website for a couple of hours, I ordered a few bags. I learned that if a person wants to get the rare limited harvest beans they have to join the Rancho Gordo bean club. The company ships six bags every quarter and the box includes a surprise; last time it was a jar of pure New Mexican chili powder. When the box arrives, I am full of anticipation and sheer delight. What unusual beans am I going to get this time? Not only do I get beans, I learn some history and get a geography lesson too because an informative newsletter accompanies the beans.

Last week, I cooked a bag of borlotti lamons, the equivalent of pinto beans on steroids. All I added was vegetable broth, bay leaves, and ham hocks. They were extraordinary in their simplicity. Another time I made my usual pot of chili and instead of using regular kidney beans, I used ayocote morados and suddenly my chili jumped to elite status.

Sometimes I feel saddened that so much flavor and diversity has been lost in the food chain along the way. My grandmother used to say that the food now just doesn’t taste as good as she remembered when growing up. I have heard similar statements from other older folks. I applaud people like Steve Sando who work tirelessly to preserve genetic diversity and heritage in our food. Because of that I have access to the highest quality ingredients available and I can cook like I’m a chef in a fancy five-star restaurant. That’s awesome!