Sunday, July 31

When? Soon. Living on Country Time

When will you let me out of here?

Life in the country moves at a decidedly slower pace than it does in the city, and that's just fine with me. It's nice to know that when you finally get around to introducing yourself to a neighbor, they don't think it the least bit odd that it's taken you three years to do so.

Everything eventually gets done. It just might not get done in a timely manner.

Along those same lines, people in the country rarely expect to be pinned down to an exact time frame for anything. I completely understand this, as I know how often unexpected delays tend to jump into your way.

We are almost always late for everything, and although you can't get away with the classic, "You wouldn't believe the traffic!" excuse out here, pretty much any other explanation will put you in the clear. Dogs had an armadillo trapped under the camper? Baby goat in the middle of the highway? Triplets born just as you were about to leave the house? I've used them all.

But sometimes you really want to know exactly when something is going to happen, or at least get a rough idea. For instance, you hang up the phone after negotiating the delivery of a load of desperately needed firewood only to realize that the conversation ended with the seller simply saying, "Okay then. We'll be seeing you." Wait. Wait. When? You have been given absolutely no clue.

I quickly learned the subtle art of casually inquiring as to when something might be expected to happen. And no matter what the situation, I would receive the same answer: "In a bit."

"So, um, when do you think you'll have that tire fixed?"

"Oh, in a bit."

"What time did you say you expect her home?"

"Well, let's see now. She should be back in a bit."

"And you figure you'll be bringing over that firewood when?"

"In a bit."

At first I thought I was getting somewhere. And then I realized that "a bit" has absolutely no set real-time definition. From what I have been able to figure out over the past 11 years, it can mean anything from 30 minutes to a week and a half. But as I said, everything does get done—eventually.

So why am I explaining all of this? Because lately I have come to realize that I have wholeheartedly adopted this handy, yet often irritating, vagueness. Only I don't say "in a bit." I say "soon." It's my standard answer to when I'm going to do something, and I use it quite often, including on this blog.

And so, for the sake of those who do not run on country time and are wondering, say, when in the heck I am going to get around to writing out the rest of those bread baking tips, or finally posting a recipe I promised I would share, I feel I should clarify what exactly I mean by "soon." Let's figure anywhere from an hour to a couple of weeks, with "very soon" definitely falling closer to the one hour mark.

And if it takes me longer than that? Well, you know I'll have a great excuse—and it won't have anything to do with the traffic. See you soon.

©, never on time, always with a story.

Daily Farm Photo: 7/31/05

Homemade Swing

Saturday, July 30

Daily Farm Photo: 7/30/05

J2 In The Cat Cabin

Attention Cat Lovers! It's time for Weekend Cat Blogging #8!
Food Bloggers around the world unite each week and share pictures of our favorite felines. See cute cat photos and discover yummy food blogs.We'd love to have you join us. Just send your permalink in a comment to Clare at Eat Stuff and add a "Weekend Cat Blogging" tag to your post.
This week check out:
That wild & crazy Kiri at Eat Stuff
Welcome to all the new cat food bloggers!
And thanks to Clare for creating Weekend Cat Blogging!

Friday, July 29

Daily Farm Photo: 7/29/05

There's Nothing Like A Handmade Fence

Thursday, July 28

Daily Farm Photo: 7/28/05


Wednesday, July 27

Don't Get Left Out Standing In The Field!

Where Did Everybody Go?

A coyote might get you. Or even worse--you'll miss the Book Swap at Beauty Joy Food. The rest of the flock is over there signing up right now. Do you want to be the only one who doesn't get a book?
You don't need to have a blog to join in. The rules are very simple, and you can even send a favorite used book right off your shelf if you like. (After all, a used book is just a new book that has already been loved, right?)
What? High postage prices got you down? Never fear! Media Rate will (eventually) get it there! It's not always fast, but it's cheap. Only $1.84 to send a 2-pound package anywhere in the U.S. There is even an International Media Rate. You can mail that 2-pound package all the way to Australia for only $4.60.
If you don't already know Amy and her amusing, literature-loving, delicious blog, be sure to tell her that Farmgirl sent you over. And just think, when a wonderful surprise book lands in your mailbox, there won't be any room left in there for bills.
So what are you waiting for? Click here to join the rest of the flock before a coyote shows up and eats you.

Daily Farm Photo: 7/27/05

Trixie Takes A Break

Tuesday, July 26

Maybe It Was The Full Moon--Or Just My Lucky Stars

Mouth-Watering Mail Call!

All I know is that it was an absolutely wonderful day. It did start with an unusual discovery in the wee-morning hours, but that had a happy ending and even turned into a good story. Then I posted my Daily Farm Photo in minutes--as oppposed to the several hours it took the day before (computers!). Outside, there were no critter crises or other farm-related catastrophes to greet me. During a quick morning trip to Blogland, I hopped over to visit Kristi at Interrupted Wanderlust and was surprised (and utterly flattered) to find that her latest post was all about me! And then I called the post office.

"Do you have a package for me?" I asked Ruth, our Postmistress.
"Yes, I do!" she said in her sing-songy voice.
"Did it come today?"
"Yes, it did!"
"I'll be right there!"

Back in June, Nic at Bakingsheet came up with the idea of "Blogging By Mail." Each person who signed up would send some goodies to one of the other participants and then receive a surprise package from somebody else. Twenty-two people joined in, and tasty treats began zipping around the world. Two days earlier, Ruth and I (after 20 complicated--yet educational for both of us--minutes) had mailed off a box to Clare at Eat Stuff in Australia. Today my package had arrived.

I peered over the tiny post office counter while Ruth fiddled with the paperwork. "Is that my box?"
"It sure is big."
"They sent it Express Mail?"

I looked at the label and couldn't believe it. It was from Sam at Becks & Posh--one of my favorite food bloggers. "Oh my god!" I cried. And for the next hour and a half, I said nothing but those three words over and over and over.

Sam, who is British but lives in San Francisco, knows that I am originally from the Bay Area and decided to send me a gourmet taste of home. Oh my god. Every single thing about her package was perfect--right down to the postmark from my hometown and the funky chartreuse masking tape all over each carefully bubble-wrapped item. This is what she sent me:

  • A marvelous finocchiona salami from The Fatted Calf Charcuterie.
  • A split of wine that she (and now I) love, Etude Pinot Noir, to go with the salami.
  • Two heavenly chocolates from Michael Recchiuti Confections.
  • A jar of the most amazing Pluot Lavender Conserve from June Taylor Jams (which I spread on slices of Oatmeal Toasting Bread I baked just for the occasion).
  • A package of scrumptious homemade Gingernut Biscuits along with the recipe.
  • An adorable miniature jar of marmite because it is her favorite English sustenance (and because somebody must keep that company in business).
  • A beautiful chartreuse leather notebook that contained (in her lovely handwriting) a sweet note, a list explaining everything she had sent (including that this notebook was "happy to be my food blog diary"), and a bread recipe she remembered I had asked for several weeks earlier on Becks & Posh.

Like I said, Oh my god.

And as if that wasn't enough, Nic sent "thank you" packages to every one of the 22 Blogging By Mail participants. I received a container filled with delicious homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and Spiced Up Ginger Cookies, as well as a packet of addicting ginger candies and an exquisite little tin of pink grapefruit green tea.

If you'd like to read about what the other blogging by mailers received, head over to Bakingsheet on August 1st as Nic will be posting a round-up. And if you are wishing a yummy package would appear in your mailbox, you'll be happy to know that Nic and Samantha are already working on another round of Blogging By Mail. In the meantime, I think it's time for a little snack. Gingernut Biscuit, anyone?

Daily Farm Photo: 7/26/05

Determined Beauty

Monday, July 25

Sunday, July 24

Daily Farm Photo: 7/24/05

Quite A Sunrise

Saturday, July 23

Recipe: Really Raspberry Tartlets With Cream Cheese Pastry Crust & Cream Cheese Filling

Showing Off My Homegrown Raspberries

Note: I had every intention of sitting down today and writing out the rest of my tips for better bread baking. But it is too hot to even think about baking bread, and so I offer up this more refreshing post instead. Despite the heat, I am planning to make sourdough onion rye tomorrow, so hopefully that will inspire me to finish the list. Check back soon!

I recently celebrated a major success in the garden. After eleven years, I finally harvested my first raspberry crop. It wasn't big enough to make jars and jars of jam or anything (oh, just the thought makes my mouth water), but it was deinitely more than the two or three berries that made up previous bounties.
I have planted various types of raspberry canes at least six different times in at least six different places, but for one reason or another (poor soil, not enough sun, poisoned by the roots of a nearby walnut tree), they never did very well. And then two years ago, my little brown raspberry-growing thumb turned green. That was the time my Latham red raspberry canes arrived in the mail before I was ready for them. Not only had I been unable to locate 30 linear feet of suitable growing space that was safe from marauding sheep, but the moonsigns were also wrong--it wasn't a good time to plant (and I needed all the help I could get).
If the roots are sufficiently moist, most mail-ordered plants and canes and even trees can usually survive a few extra days in their original packaging. I was looking at weeks. Desperate, I decided to temporarily plant them (much too close together) in the mounded-up soil along the south-facing side of the greenhouse. They went wild.
Inspired, last April I purchased six baby raspberry plants at a nearby farmer's market for fifty cents apiece. They were "suckers" that had been dug up from the seller's garden, which meant that they were already accustomed to our inhospitable climate. I was assured that they were trouble-free and would produce delicious berries all summer long. I planted them along the north-facing side of the greenhouse and mulched them with lots of hay and sheep manure. They are so happy that some of them are already covered with blossoms.
But back to my ruby red bounty. What to do with them? What to do? Something so precious as one's first raspberry crop requires thoughtful consideration. No gobbling them up straight from the colander. No burying them in brownies or smashing them into a sauce. They should be presented in their original luscious beauty, but in a way that will make the small harvest go further. Aha! I dusted off my recipe for Really Raspberry Tartlets.
I created this recipe years ago when I was still living in California. I would buy pints and pints of both red and golden raspberries from Kozlowski Farms at the Thursday Night Farmer's Market and make two-toned tartlets. In her book, The Berry Bible, author Janie Hibler explains that "when seeds of red raspberries are grown, about one out of every 1,000 produces yellow or apricot colored fruit rather than red. Other than color, these raspberries are the same as typical red raspberries. The most widely grown cultivar is Fall Gold." I believe Kozlowski Farms was the first commercial grower of golden raspberries.
These sweet little treats combine two of my favorite things--cheesecake and berry pie--into one wonderfully easy dessert. And although I often say that fresh garden bounty is best enjoyed unadorned, I think these tartlets actually bring out the flavor of the raspberries. (And your friends and loved ones will be much happier than if you just served them a tiny dish of seven or eight naked berries.)
They travel well and are perfect for all kinds of meals and settings. You can pack them on a picnic or brush them with a red currant jelly glaze and serve them at a formal dinner. You can arrange them on a large platter garnished with fresh mint leaves and set them out at a buffet. They require no silverware, are not messy, and can be eaten standing up.
I call them Really Raspberry Tartlets not because of their overpowering berryness (though I suppose you could pile a lot more berries onto them if you wanted to), but because that is what they are: a really nice way to showcase your raspberries, really simple to make, really easy to gobble up two or three before you've realized it.
They are made with a very friendly cream cheese pastry which you do not even have to roll out. I actually taught an entire class devoted to this delightful dough called "Never Fail Cream Cheese Pastry To The Rescue." If you have never produced a decent crust in your life, you can successfully make one with this recipe. Variations of it abound in cookbooks; it is a caterer's secret weapon.
I do suggest that you make enough to allow for more than one tartlet per person, as they tend to disappear rather quickly. As always, I encourage you to use organic ingredients whenever possible.
Really Raspberry Tartlets
Makes 10--May Be Doubled
1 cup flour
4 ounces (1/2 package) cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup (one stick) butter, softened
1/4 teaspoon salt
Using an electric mixer, mix together flour, cream cheese, butter, and salt until a dough forms.Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate at least 30 minutes (or up to 24 hours). If chilled longer than 1 hour, let the dough warm up at room temperature for about 20 minutes. If you are in a hurry, you can place the dough in the freezer to chill for 15-20 minutes.
Divide the dough into 10 balls and place them in a standard size muffin pan. Press each dough ball into the bottom and up the sides of the muffin cup to form a shell. Bake at 350 degrees until nicely browned, about 20-25 minutes. Carefully invert the pan to the remove baked shells, and cool on a wire rack. (Note: the pastry shells can be made a day in advance or even frozen).
Cream Cheese Filling:
8 ounces (one package) cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Approximately 2-1/2 cups fresh raspberries (you can also use blackberries or blueberries)
1/2 cup red currant jelly (optional)
With an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese with the powdered sugar until smooth. Beat in the lemon juice. (May be made a day ahead; chill until ready to use.) Spread a heaping tablespoon of the cream cheese mixture on the bottom of each cooled pastry shell. Arrange the berries on top.
For a more formal presentation, just before serving, heat 1/2 cup red currant jelly in a small saucepan and use a pastry brush to glaze berries with the warm jelly.
Refrigerate until ready to serve. The tartlets will keep for several days in the refrigerator (though they will not look quite as pretty as when first made). The cream cheese filling will soften and almost melt into the pastry shell, giving them a different (but very nice) taste and texture.

© 2005, the award-winning blog where Farmgirl Susan shares stories & photos of her crazy country life on 240 remote Missouri acres - and where it's okay to eat raspberry tarts for breakfast because after all, they do contain fruit.

Daily Farm Photo: 7/23/05

Eighteen-Year-Old Gretel Soaks Up The Sun

Attention Cat Lovers!
It's time for Weekend Cat Blogging #7!
Food Bloggers around the world unite each week and share pictures of our favorite felines.
See cute cat photos and discover yummy food blogs.We'd love to have you join us. Just send your permalink in a comment to Clare at Eat Stuff and add a "Weekend Cat Blogging" tag to your post.

This week, check out:

Alley cat and her toys at Masak-Masak in Malaysia
cats in residence at Tigers and Strawberries in Ohio
Kiri as a Kitten at Eat Stuff in Australia
Tanuki having a rest at A Cat in the Kitchen in Sweden
The Angry Kitty with luxurious whiskers at Belly Timber in Washington

Friday, July 22

Daily Farm Photo: 7/22/05

Big Chip (To read about him, click here.)

Thursday, July 21

Warning: This Tea May Disrupt Your Sleep

Innocent (this time) But Useless

I awoke with a start. I could hear water. Moving. Next to my head. Not good.
"Mol-LY!" I hissed. Silence.

Four-and-a-half-pound Molly Doodlebug (aka The Doodle Monster) is able to daintily slip into places larger cats cannot. And she has an annoying habit of slinking onto my nightstand in the middle of the night, poking her tiny, furry face into the tall glass of water I always set there, and Thud! knocking it over. Glug, glug, glug.

Last night I took a tall, half-empty mug of Celestial Seasonings Honey Vanilla Chamomile Tea with me to bed instead of water. I figured I had slept through the thud. I sleepily pictured tea all over the floor.

More water sounds.

I fumbled around for my itty bitty flashlight and pointed it toward the mug. Still upright. No Doodle. Splish-splash! Splish-splash! I leaned over and peered into the mug. A half-submerged mouse stared up at me. Oh brother.
I grabbed the mug, cupped one hand over the top so the mouse couldn't leap out, and padded to the front door, all the while thinking that I really should deposit the mouse very far from the house. I opened the front door, stepped onto the cement stoop, and dumped out the mug.
You'd think with seven cats around, a mouse wouldn't stand a chance here. And it doesn't--as long as it's outdoors. The outside cats regularly catch mice and voles and birds and lizards and giant scary moths. I once looked out onto the covered porch off the kitchen and saw Patchy Cat sitting there with a huge packrat tail hanging out of his mouth. In two seconds he had slurped it up like a piece of spaghetti. The inside cats catch naps.

I filled up a fresh glass with water and stumbled back to bed. Never a dull moment. At least I learned that you can catch more mice with honey. . .

Daily Farm Photo: 7/21/05

Wild Mullein In The Creekbed Is Taller Than I Am

Wednesday, July 20

Daily Farm Photo: 7/20/05

Take One Rain Shower, Add A Scoop Of Sunshine. . .

Tuesday, July 19

Is That A Book In My Mailbox?

Everyone loves a treat!

Surprise! A bonus farm photo! I have a little announcement to make, and I figured it should have some kind of photo to go along with it--even if it's one that has nothing to do with the post. That's Donkey Doodle Dandy, and if you missed seeing him on the Fourth Of July, click here.

So do you like books? Do you like getting something in the mail besides bills? Then you will love what Amy has cooked up over at the wonderful BeautyJoyFood. It's a book swap, and you don't even have to have a blog to join in. The rules are very simple, and you can even send a favorite used book right off your shelf if you like.

If you don't know Amy and her amusing, literature-loving, delicious blog already, be sure to tell her that Farmgirl sent you over when you sign up for the book swap. I think this is a really fun idea, and if it's a success, Amy has promised that she'll hold more book swaps in the future. So link on over and read all about it. Hey, maybe I'll even get to send you a book!

Daily Farm Photo: 7/19/05

Always Vying For The Tastiest Blade Of Grass

Monday, July 18

Daily Farm Photo: 7/18/05

Pretty In Pink For Those Blue On Mondays

Sunday, July 17

Ten Tips on How To Bake Better Artisan Breads at Home

Freshly Baked Pain au Levain - Farmgirl Fare
Freshly baked pain au levain (recipe in Daniel Leader's Bread Alone)

January 2011 Update: More tips! You might also enjoy my new post, How To Shape Bread Dough Into Sandwich Loaves and Some Simple Bread Baking Tips.

This Daily Farm Photo of two freshly baked loaves of my pain au levain prompted some requests for tips on how to bake better crusty, free form breads, so I came up with 10 simple things you can do to immediately improve your loaves.

Then I realized one sentence on each would not suffice. So this post is much longer than originally planned. Also, I tend to get carried away on the subject of bread.

Let me preface this list by stating three things. One, bread bakers are an opinionated bunch. Two, there are at least six million opinions regarding bread baking out there. And three, most of these opinions contradict one another.

Such a basic process can easily get very complicated. And very confusing. Start delving through a pile of books on bread baking, and in no time at all your head will be spinning and your brain will feel as if it's made of dough. (I speak from experience.)

This is by no means a comprehensive lesson on bread baking, or even a basic introduction. If you've never baked a loaf of bread in your life, I recommend you begin by making pizza dough. Click here for my simple recipe.

Farmhouse White Sandwich Bread (recipe here)

From there, I suggest trying my popular Farmhouse White Sandwich Bread, which is a classic, basic loaf that's perfect for beginning bread bakers. And once you're
comfortable with the basic formula you can go on to experiment by adding various other ingredients to the dough (the recipe post includes several suggestions).

If you're ready to try making crusty, European-style loaves such as the ones pictured above—or if you're looking for ways to improve the breads you're already making—I offer you these tips.

They're not deep, dark secrets. They're not magic tricks. They're simply ten things that made my breads better and resulted in the loaves you see here.

Even the covers of these bread baking cookbooks are inspiring.

1. Do some reading.
Just don't overdo it. Pick one bread book and read it from cover to cover. If you like it and it makes sense to you, read it again. Then try a recipe. If you like the result—or if it came out terrible but you know it has potential—make it again. And again and again and again.

I believe that it's better to make one bread 10 times than to make 10 breads one time. You can't get to know a bread by making it only once.

I have a pile of cookbooks devoted to bread, but the only one that lives in my kitchen is Bread Alone by Daniel Leader. I've turned to it so many times it's now in about four pieces. It's a wonderful book, full of everything from detailed information on ingredients and mouthwatering recipes (and photos) to stories about visiting an organic grain grower and starting the Bread Alone bakery in upstate New York.

It's easy to read, and the recipes are accessible even to a beginner. At first it may seem daunting, but it's not. Start with his learning loaves and move on from there. After 20 years this book is still in print, and for good reason.

Update: Daniel Leader's latest book, Local Breads: Sourdough and Whole-Grain Recipes from Europe's Best Artisan Bakers, is fabulous. It's the culmination of dozens of trips to Europe over the past two decades in search of bakers who are still using time-honored methods and ingredients to create loaves unique to their towns and cities.

Part travelogue, part bread making class, and part gastronomic history lesson, the book is full of colorful stories of local artisans and their authentic treasured recipes, many of which have been shared for the first time, and all of which have been translated by Daniel for American home bakers. I love it even more than Bread Alone.

If you're a beginning bread baker, the beautiful step by step color photos and general information in Bread: Artisan Breads from Baguettes and Bagels to Focaccia and Brioche can help demystify the whole bread baking process, while inspiring you to start kneading. I really like the Italian Rosemary Raisin Bread, and my Carrot Herb Rolls (made with fresh herbs and lots of shredded carrots) are adapted from Bread. The stuffed focaccia is really good.

Another excellent bread book also comes from a New York bakery. Amy's Bread, Revised and Updated: Artisan-Style Breads, Sandiwches, Pizzas, and More from new York City's Favorite Bakery is packed with useful information (especially for beginners) and offers recipes for tempting loaves of all kinds and all degrees of difficulty.

Artisan Baking Across America is a gorgeous book "to bake from, to learn from, to read for the sheer pleasure of realizing the devotion and mastery that go into the making of our best daily bread." It includes stunning photographs, intimate portraits of all kinds of artisan bread bakeries and bakers, and some of their best recipes.

Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book Of Breads offers over 300 recipes for every type of bread you can imagine, and each recipe includes instructions for making the dough with your hands, an electric mixer, and a food processor. The recipe for pita bread alone was worth the price of the book.

Bread in novels: There's another bestselling book called Bread Alone. It's a quiet novel written by my good friend Judi Hendricks, and it, too, is wonderful. Much of the story takes place in a Seattle bakery, and Judi confided in me that she loves Daniel Leader's Bread Alone so much she named her novel after it.

I've read it at least three five or six times, and it always inspires me to bake bread. The sequel,
The Baker's Apprentice is a delicious read as well.

2015 Update: Baker's Blues, the third novel in the Bread Alone series is out! Click here for a special conversation I had with Judi about food, writing, and her long awaited new book.

Yet another similarly titled book is Sarah-Kate Lynch's By Bread Alone, a quirky novel I enjoy re-reading every couple of years.

2. Start with the best ingredients.
Depending on your point of view, this may sound either completely obvious or totally unnecessary. Flour is flour, right? Water is water? But when you are creating something with only four basic ingredients (flour, water, salt, yeast), the quality of those ingredients is crucial.

Wheat that is grown in dead soil and doused with chemical pesticides and herbicides, then sprayed with more pesticides once it's been harvested and is sitting in storage so it doesn't get bugs in it (yes, this is what is often done), and then highly processed and chemically bleached so that it's nice and white—this flour will never give you great bread.

Organic flour is the way to go. Stoneground if possible. It's hard to find stoneground white flour, but Heartland Mill produces their white flours using equipment that is very kind to the wheat. I use organic bread flour (sometimes called high-gluten flour) for sourdough loaves, pizza dough, and combined with organic all-purpose flour in other breads like Farmhouse White.

Water should be pure. My water comes from a spring-fed, 300-foot deep well (actually 600 feet deep if you figure we're already 300 feet down in a valley). It's run through a large outdoor filter to remove sediment, and then I filter it again at the faucet. Municipal tap water is full of chlorine and often other contaminants. These do not make good bread.

Salt is a chic ingredient these days, and some of it is incredibly expensive. There are many natural alternatives to common table salt, which is pretty nasty stuff. Sea salt is nice, but it can be heavily processed, and some people recommend not using any sort of sea salt since our oceans have become so polluted. Kosher salt, a coarse salt which can come from either mines or the sea, contains no additives.

Look around, see what you can find, what you like the taste of, and experiment with it.

2016 update: I've been buying this pure Himalayan pink salt in bulk for several years (at a very reasonable price) and using it for everything from baking bread to taking baths. It's wonderful.

Yeast is always a topic of hot debate among bread bakers. Some highly respected professionals swear by "instant" yeast—which can be mixed right into the dry ingredients—while others refuse to even utter the words.

Fresh yeast is another hot topic; again, some people swear by it, while others say it's too much trouble as it doesn't stay fresh for long and can be hard to find. I've never baked with it. My sourdough loaves don't use any added yeast. Once you have a sourdough starter, that's all you need.

If you do use yeast, make sure that it's alive—no matter what kind. I use instant yeast, which I buy in economical 1-pound packages. I store it in a jar in the freezer where it keeps for over a year, though others say it won't, and still others say you should never, ever freeze yeast. See how it can get really confusing?

You can read more about the different types of yeast available here.

Oatmeal Toasting Bread 'Old' Dough (oatmeal bread recipe here)

3. Use a sourdough starter or a sponge or a poolish or a lump of old dough.
There are all different types of 'starters.' Some are made in a few hours, some in a few days, and some live in your fridge forever.

If you make bread two days in a row, you can just save a lump of dough from the first batch and mix it into the second, or you can freeze it for another time, like the Oatmeal Toasting Bread dough pictured above.

Any kind of starter will vastly improve the crust, crumb, and flavor of your loaves. It's simply a matter of finding which one works for you. I've had my two sourdough starters ('regular' and rye) for nearly four years. The older they get, the better they make your bread. I made them using the directions in
Bread Alone.

4. Find a wooden dough bowl and use it forever.

2008 Update: While I still love using my wooden bowls, most of the time I now let my dough ferment (the first rise) in a straight-sided food grade plastic container with a snap-on lid, which makes it easy to see when the dough has doubled in size. There's no need to grease or flour the container.

2017 Update: I recently bought this 12-quart Rubbermaid container and this lid for big batches of dough and it's really nice. 

The wooden bowl is the bread baker's equivalent of the cast iron skillet. The more you mix and rise your dough in it, the more seasoned it becomes. Clean it with only a plastic scraper and a damp cloth. Wash it with water if you must, but never use soap (though if you buy a used wooden bowl, you'll need to clean it thoroughly with soapy water and soak it briefly in a mild bleach solution before the first use).

Old yeast cells will survive in the bowl, enhancing fermentation and building flavor in your doughs.

I've been using the same antique wooden bowl for a dozen years. It's four inches high and about 13 inches from rim to rim. It will hold enough dough to make three good-sized loaves. Every so often I take a cloth and rub almond oil or food grade mineral oil into the wood to keep it from drying out. It should really be done once a month. You can also use almond oil and mineral oil on wood cutting boards and rolling pins.

New wooden bowls are available in various sizes, or you might luck out and find one at an antiques store or flea market or on ebay. Old bowls are often very pricey though, because decorators and antiques collectors love them.

If you want to buy a new wooden bowl, I would check out
The Bowl Mill in Vermont. I haven't purchased any of their bowls, but they appear to be of superior quality and workmanship. If treated properly, a wooden dough bowl should last for many years.

Whether you decide to buy a new wooden bowl or an old one, remember that you don't want one that has been painted or stained or is cracked.

5. Sprinkle in the flour and stir like crazy.
When you're mixing up your dough, add only about a handful of flour at a time. Use your whole arm to stir, making wide sweeping motions (I use a wooden spoon.) This will "whip" the dough and allow the gluten to develop.

This technique works best with a wide, shallow bowl. Take several minutes to mix in all the flour, saving one cup to add while kneading. Then turn the bread out onto a floured surface and begin kneading it.

6. Give it a rest and then add the salt.

Honey whole grain dough ready for a little rest

This tip not only greatly improves nearly any type of bread, but it also allows you to decrease your kneading time (which improves the bread even more). Autolyse (pronounced AUTO-lees and used as both a noun and a verb) is a French word that refers to a rest period given to dough during the kneading process.

When making your dough, mix together only the water, yeast, flour, and grains until it forms a shaggy mass. Knead it for several minutes, and then cover the dough and let it rest for 20 minutes. I simply leave the dough on the floured counter and put my wooden bowl over it.

During this time, the gluten will relax and the dough will absorb more water, smoothing itself out so that it is moist and easier to shape. After the autolyse, knead the dough for several more minutes, mixing in any other ingredients such as herbs or nuts or dried fruit.

Since salt causes gluten to tighten, hindering its development and hydration, it should not be added to the dough until after the autolyse. And if you're using the "old dough" method (where you add a lump of finished dough from a previous batch of bread to your new dough rather than use a sponge or starter), do not mix it in until after the autolyse either, as it contains salt.

When you incorporate an autolyse into your bread baking, you will be rewarded with loaves that have greater volume and a creamier colored crumb, as well as more aroma and sweet wheat flavor. They will also look nicer and taste better. Bread doughs that contain a high proportion of white flour will benefit the most from an autolyse.

7. Keep the temperature low & the rise slow.

Taking the dough's temperature before the first rise

The fundamental art of bread baking can easily turn into a scientific study full of confusing technical jargon and complicated explanations. Since this is only an article and not an entire book, I am going to simply skip straight to the bottom line with this tip: the longer your dough is allowed to rise, the better your bread will be.

The two ways to extend rising times are by adjusting the temperature of the dough and the amount of yeast you put in it. The lower the temperature, the slower the rise. The less yeast used, the slower the rise.

Crusty, European-style breads often rise for many hours. For example, the sourdough breads I make contain no added yeast at all, only the sourdough starter—actually called a chef—that lives in my refrigerator.

The night before I plan to bake bread, I mix the chef with flour and water and set it in a place that is about 70° Fahrenheit for 8 to10 hours. The next day, this mixture becomes the base for my finished dough, which will rise for a total of another five to six hours before it's finally baked.

Many bakers agree that the ideal room temperature for bread dough to rise is between 70° and 75°. If you're baking in a kitchen that is cooler than 70°, you can easily raise the temperature of your dough by using warm or hot water (or milk)—or just let it rise a little slower, which will improve your loaves. Keep in mind that kneading the dough will also increase its temperature by a few degrees.

If the air in your kitchen is above 75°, you can use cold water in your dough (and can hopefully find a cooler place to let it rise). Storing your flours in the freezer is another way to lower the temperature of your dough, and it will also keep whole grain flours fresher.

instant read thermometer is a handy item to have for taking water, flour, and dough temperatures, and it's indispensible if you're a serious bread baker.

2017 Update: Last year I finally switched from the instant read dial thermometers pictured above to this digital version, and I'll never go back! I also use it to check everything from roasted chicken to the hot water for our beloved aeropress coffee/espresso maker.

Using less yeast than is called for in a recipe will allow the dough to rise for a longer period of time. A basic rule you can apply to nearly any bread recipe is to simply use half the yeast and double the rising time. You may have to make adjustments, but this is a good place to start.

By doing just this one thing, you should see a great improvement in your breads. They'll have more grain flavor, a nice, dense crumb with irregular air pockets, and a pleasant chewiness.

8. Catch yourself a Couche.

Pain Au Levain rising in my homemade couche

Couche is the French word for "couch" or "resting place." In the bread baking world, a couche is a piece of heavy canvas that is dusted with flour and used to support freestanding loaves, such as rolls and baguettes, while they are proofing. (When making bread, the second rise—after the loaves have been shaped—is referred to as the "proofing" phase. The first rise is the "fermentation.") As you can see in the photo, the couche cradles the loaves, keeping them straight and preventing them from sticking together.

Couches made of special heavy baker's canvas can be purchased from commercial bakery suppliers. My couche is made from a yard of raw canvas I bought several years ago at a fabric store for about $4.00. Before using it the first time, I washed it in hot water (without any detergent) to remove any sizing from the material. Since then, I have simply shaken it out well after each use. If you do need to wash your couche, use cold water (so the flour doesn't turn to glue) and no detergent.

You can place your couche either directly on a counter or on a large baking sheet (I can't imagine life without my commercial half-size sheet pans) if you need to move the loaves somewhere else to rise. Sprinkle it generously with flour and rub the flour into the canvas. Long loaves such as torpedoes or baguettes should be placed in the couche seam side up.

When you're ready to put the loaves into the oven, flip them over onto your baker's peel (or an upside down, large rimmed baking sheet) so that the seam is on the bottom and the floured side is facing up. I have several different peels and prefer the wood-handled aluminum ones the best because the thin metal easily slides under the crusts. I recommend buying the largest size you can.

To keep your loaves (and pizzas) from sticking to the peel when you slide them into the oven, lay a piece of unbleached parchment paper (which is also wonderful for baking cookies and roasting vegetables) on the peel before turning the loaves onto it, then slide the loaves and the parchment into the oven.

This is how you get that pretty white pattern on the tops of your loaves (the dark parts are where the crust "bloomed" after it was scored just before putting it into the oven). And, more importantly, your crusts will be thicker and bolder because extra flour will have embedded itself in the dough while it was rising.

9. Turn your oven into a stone hearth.
A baking stone will simulate a stone hearth in your oven and is a must if you are trying to bake crusty, free form loaves. (It's also the secret to making fantastic homemade pizza.) It will allow your breads to bake more evenly, and the initial, intense burst of heat on the cold dough will help to create high, richly colored loaves and chewy, better-tasting crusts.

There are many shapes and sizes and thicknesses of pizza or baking stones available. (Update: Now you can even buy baking stones made from steel, which some bakers swear by.) Be sure to choose one that leaves a 2- to 3-inch gap of space on all sides in your oven so air can circulate. My baking stone is 14"x15" and about 3/4" thick and I've had it for 18 years. It's now dark and seasoned. After each use, I just brush it off. If you need to wash yours, use only water, never soap.

You should season a new baking stone by heating it once or twice in a moderate oven before using it. When making bread or pizza, always allow your baking stone to preheat in the oven for at least 45 minutes so that it's nice and hot.

I find that placing my baking stone on a rack in the center of my oven gives me evenly baked breads. If the bottoms of your breads are burning before the tops are brown, or vice versa, try placing your baking stone on a lower or higher oven rack. For pizzas I place the baking stone on the lowest oven rack and crank up the heat to 500 degrees.

Oatmeal Toasting Bread in loaf pans
Freshly baked Oatmeal Toasting Bread (recipe here)

2009 Update: A few years ago I started baking all of my pan loaves on my baking stone. I place the cold stone in the cold oven like usual, let the oven heat up, and then put the loaf pans full of risen dough directly on the hot baking stone. I really like the results, and the loaves are nice and brown on the bottoms and sides.

Heavy duty commercial loaf pans really make a difference. I love my Chicago Metallic pans (pictured above is the 1-pound sizeI also use this larger size), and these USA Pans are really nice too.

10. Make some steam.
Have you ever wondered how some European-style breads get that gorgeous, glossy shine on their crusts—and why your loaves never turn out looking like that? Well, they can. All you need to do is fill up your oven with steam during the first part of baking.

Steam slows crust formation, which allows for the best possible oven "spring." It also gelatinizes the starch on the surface of the bread so that it develops a thin, glossy, beautifully brown crust.

There are two easy ways to create steam in your oven. One is to fill an inexpensive plastic spray bottle with water and mist the walls and floor of the oven for several seconds right after you put the bread in. Repeat this two more times at two or three minute intervals. (Warning: Do not spray the oven light! It makes a really big mess when it shatters.)

Try to open the oven door as little as possible when you're misting so that you don't lose all your valuable heat. You can set your oven 25 to 50 degrees higher than you need it to be to adjust for the heat loss while misting, and then just turn down the temperature once you're finished.

As long as your loaves do not have a decorative flour pattern on them (like the sourdough onion rye bread shown above), you can directly mist the dough as well. Or you can use a pastry brush to paint them with water before putting them in the oven.

The other way to create steam in your oven is by carefully pouring about a cup of hot water into a preheated pan you have set on a rack underneath your baking stone. Do this right after you have put your bread in the oven. Use a wide, shallow, old metal pan or a cast iron skillet (one of the most useful kitchen bargains around).

Do not use your favorite CorningWare baking dish, even though it's the perfect size. It will end up badly cracked, and you will end up in tears. If desired, you can also directly mist the loaves and oven walls at the beginning of the baking process when you use this method.

2009 Update: I rarely bother with the steam anymore, and I really haven't seen much (if any) difference in my breads. When I do want to create steam, I follow this tip from Daniel Leader's awesome book, Local Breads: Before you turn the oven on, place a cast iron skillet (one of the best kitchen bargains on the planet) on the rack below your baking stone. After you slide your unbaked loaves onto the hot baking stone, toss a handful of ice cubes into the hot cast iron skillet and quickly shut the oven door.

Oh, let's just make it an even baker's dozen tips!

11. Storing your edible masterpiece. 
Once you've baked a delicious loaf, you'll want it to stay as fresh as possible (assuming it lasts more than a few hours). Crusty loaves will keep best if you leave them unwrapped at room temperature.

You can store them, cut side down, in a breadbox or a cupboard or even on the kitchen counter. To re-crisp the crust, mist your bread with water and reheat it in a 400° oven for 5 to 8 minutes.

I store sandwich-style pan loaves in plastic bags at room temperature, but only for a couple of days. If the bread is whole grain, I usually leave the bag partly open. During our hot and humid Missouri summers I keep them in the fridge, which will make some people cringe, but I always toast refrigerated bread.

If you're not planning to eat your bread right away, consider freezing it. Bread freezes beautifully. I always bake several loaves at a time, no matter what kind of bread I'm making; there's no reason to go to all that effort for just one loaf.

I simply put whole or half loaves in heavy-duty freezer bags and toss them in the chest feezer, though some people recommend wrapping each loaf in aluminum foil first. You can defrost frozen bread at room temperature, or you can go straight from freezer to oven. For baguettes and large sandwich loaves (and all sorts of other things), I buy 2.5-gallon jumbo zipper bags, which I wash and reuse over and over.

12. Write everything down.

I used to be really bad about doing this, but I now find it indispensable. Each time you bake bread, simply take a few minutes to write down everything you did, from the amount of ingredients you used to the length of each rise, to how the finished bread looked and tasted. The more detailed your notes, the better.

There are so many things that can affect your bread baking; everything from the brand of flour to the weather can make a difference in how your bread comes out. For instance, when it's cloudy because of a low pressure system in the area, bread dough actually rises more quickly because it has less atmospheric pressure on it. Taking notes allows you to not only look back and see what worked and what didn't, but also helps you figure out why.

Farmhouse White ready for the oven
Farmhouse White ready for the oven (recipe here)

Each time I bake bread, even if I'm making my Farmhouse White for the 200th time, I pull out one of my bread notebooks and make detailed notes about the entire process. I also record the indoor temperature and humidity, the outdoor temperature, what the weather is like, and any other variables I can think of. This information can be especially helpful for the breads you don't bake very often.

Honey Whole Grain Bread baked using tips 2,5,6,7, and 9

13. And finally: Practice, practice, practice.
There is nothing that will improve your breads more than simply making them over and over again. And the best part is, there is nothing that will thrill your friends and loved ones more than receiving the results of your bread baking efforts.

So that's all there is to it. Just take these tips with you into the kitchen, and in no time at all you should be hearing those sweet, magic words, "This is the best bread I've ever tasted!"

Got more flour left? Check out these other Farmgirl Fare bread recipes:
Beyond Easy Beer Bread (my most popular recipe)
Whole Wheat Beer Bread
Onion Rye Beer Bread

How To Make Pita Bread in About an Hour
Savory Feta Cheese & Scallion Scones
Cranberry Christmas Scones (tasty any time of year!)
Meyer Lemon (or Regular Lemon) Scones
Whole Wheat Scones with Currants & Oats

Oatmeal Toasting Bread (makes wonderful rolls and burger buns too)
Italian Rosemary Raisin Bread
Fresh Tomato & Basil Whole Wheat Sourdough Bread

Carrot Herb Rolls (and a great bread book for beginning bread bakers)
My Favorite Easy Pizza Dough Recipe

Still hungry? You'll find links to all my sweet and savory Less Fuss, More Flavor recipes in the Farmgirl Fare Recipe Index. Enjoy!

©, the warm and crusty and slathered with butter foodie farm blog where Farmgirl Susan shares recipes, stories, and photos from her crazy country life—and everything is better with homemade bread.

Daily Farm Photo: 7/17/05

Dawn Patrol

Saturday, July 16

Daily Farm Photo: 7/16/05

Patchy Cat Guards The Sheep From His Perch On The Barn Gate
(And when you open & close the gate, he happily rides back & forth)

Attention Cat Lovers!
It's time for Weekend Cat Blogging #6!
Food Bloggers unite each week and share pictures of our favorite felines.See cute cat photos and discover yummy food blogs.We'd love to have you join us. Just send your permalink in a comment to me or to Clare at
Eat Stuff

This week, check out
Taffy & Kiri (getting along!) at Eat Stuff, the cute Minnaloushe at Tigers and Strawberries, and the shy Boo in Malaysia who is joining us for the first time this weekend from Masak Masak.

Friday, July 15

Childhood Food Memories

Amy at the wonderful blog BeautyJoyFood has tagged me for a food memories meme. For those of you who may not be familiar with the concept, "meme" (pronounced meem) is an alteration of "mimeme" and is defined by Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary as "an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person." Various memes are always bouncing around the food blog community, usually offering a personal glimpse into some aspect of the food blogger's life. They also give you a chance to discover new blogs.
This meme asks for five food-related things you miss from your childhood. At first I drew a complete blank, but then some amusing, long-forgotten little tidbits began to leap out from the past and onto my notepad. I even started having fun. Although this is a little different from my usual posting style (and I'm not sure if anybody else will actually find these memories amusing), I decided I would take a risk and join in. So, whether you're ready or not, here are five food-related things I miss from my childhood:
1. Always knowing exactly what kind of ice cream cone to order: Blue Bubblegum.
This one's pretty self-explanatory.
2. Five cent suckers from See's Candies.
These were big, square, awkward chunks that you could barely fit in your mouth. They tasted delicious and seemed to last forever--a terrific bargain for a kid at the mall on a limited budget. The hardest part was deciding between chocolate or butterscotch. As the years went by, I remember the price getting bigger and the suckers getting smaller, but you still couldn't beat them. I haven't had one in ages, as I am more of a Milk Chocolate Bordeaux girl these days when it comes to See's Candies. On a lark, I went to the See's Candies website to see if the suckers are still being made. They had some little "gourmet lollypops" that looked as if they might be the diminutive great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren of my beloved childhood treats. Caffe Latte and Vanilla must be new flavors. Twelve dollars for 1 lb. 5 oz.
3. That Mashed Potato Stuff
I love sauces and gravies and food that is all mixed together. I would have done very well in a household that stir-fried everything. But when I was growing up, nine times out of ten, the answer to "What are we having for dinner?" was (literally) "Meat, vegetable, and something else." With rare exception, these three things were never touching one another, let alone mixed together or drowning in a pool of gravy. Not long after I met him, my ex-husband (who is a very good cook) offered to make me and my brother absolutely anything we wanted for a special dinner. We both immediately screamed, "LASAGNE!"
And so it was always a thrill when my mother announced that my brother and I would be eating dinner on our own, because this meant we would get to sit on the floor at the big coffee table in the family room, watch TV, and have That Mashed Potato Stuff. I do not know if this dish has an actual name. I do not know if it was based on an actual recipe. It was a pile of instant mashed potatoes which had a large crater formed in the center. Into this was poured a ground beef-gravy mixture that I believe was made with Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup. I absolutely adored it. You cannot cringe until you have actually tried it. This is a far cry from my current eating style, but I know that if my mother handed me a plate of That Mashed Potato Stuff right now, I would probably gobble up the entire thing.
4. Total nutrition ignorance, calorie unconsciousness, & completely guilt-free eating of absolutely anything (like blue bubblegum ice cream).
Need I say more?
5. And finally, Not having to do the dishes!
Because this is a meme, I now get to tag fellow food bloggers and send them back into their childhoods. Obviously no one is obligated to participate, though I am hoping these people will. I know at least two of them grew up outside the U.S., and I am looking forward to reading what everyone comes up with:
Anne at Anne's Food
Shuna at Eggbeater
If you are tagged, here's what you do: Remove the blog at #1 from the following list and bump every one up one place; add your blog’s name in the #5 spot; link to each of the other blogs for the desired cross-pollination effect.

Next: select new friends to tag and add to the pollen count.
Then list your memories.
And if anyone else has a childhood food memory they would like to share, feel free to write about it in the comments section. Or post it on your blog and leave a comment here with the link.
Have fun!