So recently I decided it was time to stop eating the fried foods and donuts that were so readily available at my store and start eating more of the healthier options available. No particular reason for it except that I prefer to eat healthy when I can. I don’t usually go in for food fads (as several blog posts attest), and generally eat to make myself feel good. But a chocolate glazed donut or a tub of mac and cheese alongside a piece of fried chicken is a siren song for me and I’ve been eating far too much of that. Too much.
My store is known far and wide for its good fried chicken. I know one gentleman who drives 2 hours every Friday evening to get enough to hold him through the weekend.
It happens that our power bars are on sale this week and I used to eat those things like crazy. Perhaps a little too much sugar, but overall healthier than a donut. A yeast donut that’s been fried and glazed with chocolate. One I can eat in about six bites.
Enough of that, the power bars! I used to take boxes of these things with me when I was traveling in case I wasn’t able to catch a meal when I was supposed to. There are tons of brands and tons of flavors. It seems like most of them fall into two categories. It’s either peanut butter or chocolate. I don’t care a whole lot for peanut butter but you know how I feel about chocolate.
So on Sunday, for my lunch break I got a power bar billing itself as Chocolate Brownie. It was really good. Along with the bottle of water (which I’ve been drinking a lot more lately) it filled me up just right so I had plenty of energy to finish work and didn’t feel sleepy from eating too much. (Feeling sleepy from overwork and stress are a different story.) My mind started turning gears about power bars. Then on Monday, I brought with me my snack for my break. I brought crackers and cheese, something I love but haven’t thought of in a while. I sat outside enjoying the sunshine and cool breeze and drank my water and ate crackers and white cheddar cheese. It was good.
Then I came home and made brownies, cuz, well, brownies are good.
When I was in college and living with my sister and her husband, I learned to make “healthy” brownies. We all loved chocolate, though they were into carob at the time, and I wanted to make a power bar alternative. So I started with the basic brownie recipe which I’ve included at the bottom of the post. Then I added various seeds and grains until it was unrecognizable as a brownie, but still very good and very filling.
So I did that again today when I got home from work.
The weather has turned nice for a couple of days. I got off work early, at 5. I was home by six and relaxing. We ate dinner and sat outside to enjoy the evening. Once the sun was down enough to cool things off, we went inside and I started making brownies.
I added a quarter cup of wheat germ cuz that’s supposed to be healthy. I added all the sunflower seeds that were left, about a quarter cup. I added a spoonful of wheat bran cuz again, it’s supposed to be healthy. I added a large helping of sesame seeds. I added the last of the chocolate chips cuz that’s what you do. And just because I had it in the freezer, I added some coconut, about a half cup.
All that went into the batter. If I had them, I would have added Rice Krispies, but I forgot to get them before I left the store. That would have added a crunch factor that would have sent these over the moon. I set the baking time at the high end of the time spread.
It’s important that brownies don’t over cook. The gold standard of brownies is chewy and gooey. Over cooking will make dry brownies and maybe even burnt brownies. But I had added so much stuff to the batter, I wanted to be certain the batter was done.
So what was the end result? I haven’t eaten one yet, so I don’t know. But the batter tasted primo.
So why add all those extra items? Particularly to a batter that just doesn’t need it? There’s a couple of reasons. One reason, and the most important for me is I wanted something to take to work that I would actually eat (it’s chocolate, right?) but would be healthy and sustaining. The second reason, the more you add to the batter, the more lift the brownie has. The appeal of brownies is that as they cool they sink into themselves and create a fudgy, gooey, chewy bar that’s exceptionally delicious. (There are cake brownies, but I don’t really care for those.) Adding various chips, seeds, nuts, fillers causes the brownie to be thicker but still gooey and decadent. And it adds interesting flavor bites and texture.
Next time I’m going to try adding rice krispies. I think that’ll be good.
Here’s my standard go-to recipe for brownies. Have fun with it. Make ’em healthy!
Melt a half cup of butter slowly in a heavy pan. When butter is completely melted, turn off the heat. Add one to one and a half cups of sugar (depending on taste) and mix until most of the sugar is dissolved. Add one teaspoon of vanilla (not more or it will take on a stronger vanilla taste than you’ll care for, trust me.) Add two eggs and mix completely. Add 1/2 to 3/4 cup of cocoa depending on how chocolaty you want it. If you’re adding other chocolate flavoring (like chips) stick to the lower end. Stir that in carefully since cocoa tends to fluff about. This will take a couple of minutes if you’re doing it carefully. Once all the lumps are gone and the mixture is smooth, add a 1/2 cup of flour, a 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and a 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder. Stir in all at once, as slowly as you did the cocoa. Once the batter is smooth and silky, add any chips, nuts, seeds, candy, etc. Spread in a prepared 9×9 inch pan and bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out relatively clean. Alternatively, use an 8×8 pan and bake for 34-40 minutes for a higher, gooier brownie. You can also frost the brownie once it has completely cooled.
It’s been a while since I posted but it hasn’t been from lack of desire. It’s been from a lack of time. And it’s primarily due to the job situation. See, I was hired as part time. When I started working, I got typically around 25-30 hours a week which left me plenty of time for writing and the household tasks that needed to be done with some spare time to read and listen to music and watch TV. Even get out of the house once in a while. But over the last three months, my hours have been steadily increasing. I’m now routinely scheduled for 35-40 hours a week, but I get asked to cover other people’s shifts on top of mine, so I tend to work far more than 40 hours. On Thursday, for instance, I got called in early, worked a 9.5 hour shift with no other person at my level to assist. I got one ten minute break in that time, and assisted in training a new employee. The next day, yesterday, I worked noon to 10 on a register, got my breaks, but was on my feet for the full ten hours. Today, I was supposed to work 5-11, but I got called in and now have to report at two. I have no idea what the staff situation will be once I get there. It’s exhausting. I had last Monday off, and won’t get another day off until next Friday.
On top of that, the timing of the shifts I work can be tough to work around. I work either 12:30 – 9, or 5-11. The mid-shift is hard to work around because I don’t want to get into something and have to stop mid-stream to go to work. By the time I get home and relax, it’s time to go to bed. The closing shift is easier to deal with since I have nearly the entire day to work, but having to go to work looms over the whole effort. Getting home near midnight is rough, too.
The saving grace in all this is I love the job, despite the long hours and really bad wages. Interacting with the customers is fun; talking about food is fun; my coworkers (for the most part) are great. Even the drive to and from work is nice because it’s relaxing, I get to see deer and nature and water vistas. So overall, it’s a good experience.
What it boils down to is in all this mixture, something has to give and most days, it’s the blog. Partner/Spouse and I are about to celebrate the 8th anniversary of our commitment ceremony and I’m trying to get time off for that. I need to reignite my writing career and get another book out on KDP. I need to get my current book based on the blog out in print version. It can be a whirlwind. The next two weeks are going to be challenging, but I’m hopeful things may calm down a bit after that.
So, I’ll continue to update as I can, and share fun and funny cooking stories. I was joking with a customer the other day and she was laughing hard. “This is why I keep coming back to this store,” she said. “It’s so much fun!”
“No charge for the floor show, ma’am. I’m here all week except Thursdays. Try the veal.”
She laughed again. “That’s from Shrek, right?”
My boss saw the whole thing and gave me a $5 gift card.
And as always,
Walking through Walmart, Partner/Spouse turned to me. “Have you thought about Toni’s birthday present yet? What day is it?”
“The 28th,” I said. “I thought some sidewalk chalk. She had a blast with it last summer.” We happened to walk by a display with cartons of sidewalk chalk on sale for 50% off. Cool!
“We’ve still got a few weeks to go, but let’s get it now.” Two boxes in the cart and on our way.
A few days before the birthday, I said, “I’ll get some wrapping paper and a card tonight at the store.” Partner/Spouse nodded. And I forgot.
The day before the birthday I said, “I’ll pick it up tonight. I won’t forget.” He nodded again.
My schedule had me at the store for the mid-shift so I would be getting off at 9. We weren’t very busy so I went to our card section and found a little girl’s card with Disney characters, a fun game inside, and a cute message. Didn’t take long. I opted for a gift bad and looked them over too. Decisions made, I’d pick them up at the end of my shift.
The day wore on, going faster than it normally did. I handled the change delivery, working on the floor since the trays go into the bottom of the safe. It wasn’t hard work, but when I was done after fifteen minutes, I felt exhausted. I told my coworker I could feel my brain shutting down. I thought my blood sugar might be dropping so I slugged down a soda and a candy bar outside in the fresh air and felt better. We weren’t busy, but it stayed steady all evening. About 7:30, a customer walks up to me. He was a young man, wearing a tshirt that identified himself as a volunteer fireman, but not in our county.
“Sir, I noticed a slight smell of gas over in your dairy section.”
“Really?” I said. I was surprised since that’s a cooler section. We walked over and I could catch faint whiffs but nothing overpowering.
Apart from me, there was one other associate at my level in the store so it was up to us to figure out what to do. We asked the fireman for advice and called the non-emergency number and reported the faint odor of gas. They recommended we call 911, but report it as a non-emergency.
Within ten minutes, the emergency crew arrived and was scouting the store with sensors. I was manning the customer service desk to coordinate any findings. In the meantime, my associate was searching for the contact numbers sheet which had mysteriously disappeared.
Short minutes later, the fireman came up to me and ordered the immediate evacuation of the store.
I made the announcement. “Attention all customers and employees. Please evacuate the store immediately. Leave your purchases and make your way to the front of the store and the exits. This is an emergency evacuation. Please leave immediately.”
The fireman laughed. “You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”
I nodded. “Not here, but yes.” I repeated the message as I watched the customers leaving.
Many of them were grumbling, wanting to stay long enough to pay for what they had selected. Once we were all outside (I had made a quick circuit of the store to make certain no one was left inside, including the restrooms), the fireman spoke with me and my associate.
They did not detect any gas, but they did find acutely dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. He explained to us that normal levels are around 9. They order evacuations at 35. We were over 200. (That’s thousand parts per million, btw.) If we had not had our front doors blocked open to enjoy the fresh breezes coming off the bay, we would have had a store full of dead people. The next two hours were spent trying to keep customers out of the store (because the four fire engines and three ambulances with their lights flashing in front of the doors weren’t enough), trying to find a store manager of any kind to answer their phone, and help the fireman find any equipment using gas power rather than electric. I’ve been with the store for six months. My associate for six and a half. I felt bad for the fire dept.
At one point, all the store employees (approximately fifteen in all) were checked out by the EMTs to make sure our blood oxygen was okay. We were all fine. I called Partner/Spouse to update him and he have me some advice to give my coworkers. About 10pm, I cut everyone loose who wanted to go. I needed to stay and my associate stayed since she was actually the closer that night. Three others stayed to clear up their departments and help straighten up, if we ever got back inside.
Which we did at ten minutes to eleven. We put all the stock back on the shelves from the various shopping carts and register belts. We cleaned and straightened. We counted out the tills and locked all the money up. We got out of there sometime after midnight. I started my shift twelve hours earlier.
I was halfway home before I remembered Toni’s card and gift bag.
Partner/Spouse had it covered. We had a gift bag left over from my birthday. We had a ton of Hershey’s kisses, plus some other odds and ends of small candy. We even had a blank card meant for another person for next month that was a little girly-ish.
The next day (yesterday), I put it all together and waited until she left for school. Then I put the bag on their porch by the front door so she would see when she got home from school.
Hope she likes it.
In my late teens, I visited a friend of mine, an older lady, well steeped in the lore of the “old wives club.” She had an “old wives tale” for everything. Her favorite comment was “Old wives aren’t so misinformed.” We had been busy in her garden that afternoon, so when it came time for dinner, she invited me to stay.
“How do you feel about garlic soup?” she asked.
I was startled. “Garlic soup? Never heard of it.”
She immediately started making biscuits to go with the soup since they would take the longest. Then I watched as she efficiently and quickly peeled and roughly chopped two full heads of garlic. Not the single cloves, but two large heads of garlic. She gave them a rough chop and set them aside. A small carrot was cut into tiny matchstick pieces, and then some baby spinach was washed and torn and set aside.
She put a large soup pot on the stove and turned on the burner to medium low. She melted some butter and added the garlic. It was soon sizzling and sending its wonderful aroma throughout the house. When it was golden brown, she added two teaspoons of flour.
“To sop up the fat,” she said.
She then added a cup of chicken broth and stirred to incorporate it. It turned into a thick gravy.
“Are we having that over the biscuits?” I asked.
“Nope, just watch.”
She added five more cups of broth, one at a time, stirring until each cup was completely incorporated. With each addition, the soup became thinner. It didn’t become clear, not with flour in it, but it came pretty close. She allowed it to bubble away for a few minutes, then added the carrots. The soup simmered until the carrots were soft but still toothsome, al dente it’s called, which didn’t take long given their small size. She turned the fire off, pushed the spinach into the soup and covered it.
She then turned to the fridge and pulled out a tomato, a cucumber, and an onion.
“That goes in, too?” I asked, fascinated at the ingredients.
“No,” she said with a chuckle. “That goes into the salad.”
Oh, that made sense. She chopped them and divided them onto small plates and added a small handful of pecans. The biscuits were done by this time so they came out of the oven. I set the table with utensils and drinks (this was in the days long before it was popular to leave your table “decorated” with place settings.) She ladled soup into shallow bowls while I set the salad plates on the table. I had a wedge of lemon for my salad dressing. Don’t remember what she did.
We sat down to dinner thirty minutes after starting. It was the most flavorful and surprising soup I’d ever had. It was also the first soup I’d ever seen that didn’t simmer four hours.
So I took her out for ice cream for dessert.
Decades later, I was in China and noticed Roasted Garlic Soup on the menu. I was transported back to my friend’s kitchen and happily ordered it, anticipating something similar. What I got was something completely different, but equally delicious. I was fortunate that the chef could speak passable English, so I got the recipe from him.
You roast SIX whole heads of garlic. If you’ve never roasted garlic before, you’re in for a treat. Remove as much of the paper skins as you can. Cut the top off the garlic to include the tips of the garlic cloves. Turn your oven to 375. Place the garlic on a large sheet of foil, drizzle with a small amount of olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Make a packet of the foil so the top of the foil does not touch the garlic. When the oven is ready, roast the garlic for about an hour and fifteen minutes. Take them out, but do not unwrap them. When they’re cool to the touch, open the packet and squeeze the cloves into a bowl. They will be soft and easily mashed so be careful. At this point, you can spread them on toast, crackers, bread, etc. to make a really good appetizer.
For the soup, though, over medium heat, in a large soup pot, melt a full stick of butter and add the garlic. Cook it for a few minutes, then add 3/4 cup flour and stir to combine. This will make a roux. Cook it until it gets to be a golden color, about five minutes or so. Add four cups of chicken stock one cup at a time incorporating after each addition. This will create a very thick gravy. Then add two cups hot water at once. Stir until it starts to simmer. Add some oregano, basil, thyme, your basic Italian seasoning, about a half tablespoon or a full tablespoon depending on your taste. I like a lighter hand with it. Cook for another twenty minutes or so. Serve with crusty bread and shaved parmesan to garnish the top.
I wish I had pictures of these to add, but I enjoyed these soups in the days before cell phones, and taking pictures of every meal wasn’t even thought of at the time.
So, if you read the last post, you know that I’m on the lookout for the perfect homemade bread. I have pretty exacting criteria, but fairly easy on the surface. They are:
- Must be easy – and by easy, I mean easy for me
- Must be a “high riser” – meaning I don’t want a flat loaf, but one that rises above the top of the pan
- Must be tasty – I left the salt out of a recipe recently and got a very bland tasting loaf. Didn’t finish it
So, I found the recipe below, and it looked intriguing, so today I made it.
It was easy enough. One thing I’ve learned about bread making over time is that bread really doesn’t like to be manhandled. Over mixing, or over kneading bread seems to make it tougher to eat. Mixing things with machines seems to be the culprit. Bread machine loaves have always been tougher to me. Even cakes that I’ve made with the stand mixer have been less tender than those I’ve mixed by hand.
Another thing I learned today is leaving bread to bake even a couple of extra minutes will make for a tough crust. Some people like a hearty bite to their bread, but I prefer to sink my teeth into a substantial slice, sturdy enough to hold any sandwich together without falling apart, but one that doesn’t tear up the inside of my mouth with sharp edges and crusts that pull away from the slice if I haven’t chomped all the way through it.
Sounds like I’ve given this a lot of thought, doesn’t it? I have.
So, with today’s loaf, I followed the recipe to the letter. Start to finish, it took about three and a half hours. An hour after it came out of the pan, I was slicing into it to find out how it looked and how it tasted. Wait, you didn’t know that you never, ever cut into hot bread? Not even warm bread. Check with Alton Brown for the scientific reason, but you shouldn’t do it. Even in restaurants, the hot bread you’re served has been rewarmed in either a microwave or a warming oven. The reason is because it’s not fully finished cooking when it comes out of the oven. The escaping steam, and subsequent cooling of the loaf gives the interior its structure and sturdiness. You’ve seen people who have served fresh bread that hasn’t cooled and found the interior to be gummy and squished together? Now you know why.
The recipe is below, and I’ll add comments along the way.
First of all, if the recipe calls for a specific ingredient, it’s best to use that ingredient if you can. I don’t always have bread flour on hand so I use all purpose flour (AP flour.) In this instance, I used bread flour. It has more of the wheat proteins to form gluten when water is added which forms the protein chains causing the elasticity giving the finished bread its strength of structure. Long sentence, almost verbatim from Alton Brown, so there’s your science for the day.
Make certain all ingredients are at room temperature except those that specifically say to heat them or to cool them. I store jars of yeast in the fridge and trust the warmth of the water to warm it in time. I’ve just switched over to the individual packets for one important reason: they remain fresh much longer without needing to be refrigerated.
It’s a good idea to have your ingredients pre-measure before you start since your hands are likely to get messy.
Basic White Bread Recipe
- 1 cup milk
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1/2 cup warm water
- 2 packages active dry yeast [oops, I only used one but it turned out fine. wonder how high it’ll rise next time I make it!]
- 2 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp salt
- 1 cup of warm water
- 6-7 cups of unbleached bread flour
Heat 1 cup of milk and 2 tbsp butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat when the butter is melted. Set aside to cool. [I warmed the milk until half the butter was melted, then set aside. While it was cooling, the rest of the butter melted completely.]
Pour 1/2 cup of warm water into a small bowl. [Run you hot water tap until it starts to steam. This is the ideal temp for bread making. Also, I used a one cup glass measuring cup with a handle to make pouring it out easier.] Slowly pour yeast into bowl while stirring. The constant stirring while adding the yeast will prevent the dry yeast from clumping. Set the bowl of yeast water aside for about 5 minutes while you work on the next 2 steps. [This is a brilliant idea. So simple, I wonder why I never thought of it!]
In a large bowl, add sugar, salt, and 1 cup of warm water. Mix.
Check the small saucepan of milk and butter. If the contents are warm to the touch, pour the liquid into the large bowl and mix.
Pour the yeast water into the large bowl. It is important that the batter is warm, not boiling hot. Hot liquid, such as the milk you heated up, will kill the dry yeast and prevent the bread from rising. [Remember, yeast is a living creature and mistreating it won’t do you any favors.]
Begin mixing in the unbleached bread flour, one cup at a time. By the fifth cup of flour, the dough will begin to get stiff and it will be difficult to mix it with the wooden spoon. Turn dough out onto a floured board and begin to knead the dough. Continue adding more flour and kneading the flour into the dough until the dough is smooth, not sticky. [Bread dough will tell you when it’s ready. Use a lot of flour on your hands at the beginning, but as the kneading process continues, you’ll use less until the dough stops sticking to anything but itself. For me, it took ten minutes to get the other two cups incorporated. Check out Youtube for a demo on the kneading process.]
Next, grease a large bowl with butter. Put the bread dough into the bowl and then turn the dough over so that the top of the dough is now buttered. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and let the dough rise at room temperature until double in size or about 1 hour. [I’ve said this before, but your oven is the perfect bread rising box. Just don’t turn it on!]
Punch down dough. Turn it out onto a floured board and knead out all the bubbles for about 5 minutes. [Make sure you go the full five minutes. Use a timer if necessary. The dough will get so smooth.] Divide the dough in half and form each half into a loaf by rolling the dough into a rectangle. Roll the dough up like a jellyroll. Pinch seam closed. Pinch and tuck edges under the loaf. [Measure your rectangle against your loaf pan so it will fit. The short side should be the same measurement as the pan’s length. A general measurement is 7″x14″.]
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter two loaf pans. Spread a light layer of yellow cornmeal on the loaf pans, if desired. Set loaves in pans, cover with kitchen towel, and allow to rise until double in size or for about a half hour.
Bake bread for about 45 minutes or until golden brown. Remove bread from oven and turn out loaves onto a rack or a clean kitchen towel. Allow to cool before cutting. [I baked my loaf for the full 45 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through. The crust came out tough, but edible. Next time, I’ll check it at 35 minutes.]
Here’s the finished product:
This recipe makes two loaves. I didn’t make two loaves since we can’t eat that much bread before it spoils. I rolled the dough out, and shaped it. Then I wrapped it in plastic wrap that I’d sprayed with butter spray and froze it. When I want another fresh loaf, I’ll unwrap it and put it into the loaf pan to thaw out and rise.
So, my overall assessment is this is a success. It’s a tiny bit more of a time investment than I’d prefer, but I have other bread recipes that will work easier if pressed for time.