Sunday, October 6, 2013

Rising to the occasion

Over the course of this food blogging journey, I've heard several friends say in response to my posts about yeast breads that they're intimidated by working with yeast. I'll let you in on a little secret: I was too the first dozen or so times I tried it. But then, through trial and error, I learned the trick to it. So now it's just a matter of having the time. Because I won't lie - baking with yeast takes time. I know, I hear you saying, "but I don't have time to fiddle around with yeast. Those recipes take HOURS...sometimes all day!" Guess what? I don't have time either. That has been my excuse many times for not trying a new yeast recipe. But I've discovered we do have time. I work long hours, have a second job, and I'm heavily involved in non-profit and social organizations, but I still have time. And so do you, if you really want to try. I'm not going to give you that old lame-ass line about how we make time for the things that are really important to us, because - let's be honest - unless baking is your career, experimenting with yeast recipes isn't REALLY important to anyone, including me. But it is fun for me. It's something I enjoy doing. And it produces beautiful, delicious, and sometimes impressive results. So I've learned how to make time for it, even with my crazy schedule. Its really not that hard. It's all about time management and advance planning. And not getting in over your head right away, thus scaring yourself off from ever trying again.

Start simple. Start with homemade pizza crust. I found a recipe on Pinterest that is simply amazing. And easy! It's now my default homemade pizza crust. Does this mean I'll never buy the little Jiffy or Chef Boyardee boxes again? No. That Chef Boyardee sauce is delish, and sometimes the $.50 box of Jiffy mix is just way more convenient. But if you plan ahead a little for your meals, you can enjoy a fresh, chewy, pizza parlor-style crust straight from your own oven. It bakes up best when you make and bake it fresh, but it works great frozen too. I currently have about four balls of this pizza dough in my freezer. It doesn't take any more effort to double the dough recipe when you're making it and then follow the directions at the link above for freezing it uncooked. Then, when I'm in the mood for pizza, I just grab one from the freezer, put it in the fridge to thaw overnight, and the next evening when I get home from work, dinner is done in 15 minutes.

So, what's the trick about yeast I've learned? Temperature. It is just that freaking simple. The liquid you add the yeast to must the right temperature. Too cool and the yeast doesn't "wake up" or activate; too hot and you kill the yeast. Use a thermometer if you must, but I just wing it. I've come to learn what the "just right" temp is for working with yeast. A lot of recipes will tell you it's around 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit. I dunno. It's like the perfect bathwater.

The Peter Reinhart bagels I've started making work almost the same way - make a whole bunch and store in the freezer! I made a batch this weekend and got tons accomplished at the same time. I made my sponge (or starter) Saturday morning (which took all of 5 minutes) and set it aside to work its magic for the next two hours. In the meantime, I baked a cake, took a shower, ran some errands and had lunch with the Big Guy. When we got home the yeast sponge was all bubbly and huge, so it was time to get to work on the second stage - making the dough. It took about 15 minutes to mix and knead the dough, which can be done a bit faster if you have a stand mixer with a dough hook. I usually go the mixer route, but this weekend I was feeling the "need" to knead. It felt good to work out some frustrations on a piece of dough and to actually feel this living food change texture and shape under my hands. Then it was time to rest the dough for 20 minutes (Facebook break!) and after that the Big Guy helped me shape the bagels. Don't tell him I said this, but his came out prettier than mine. Another 20 minutes rest and they were ready to be covered and put in the fridge until Sunday. When I finally remembered them this evening it was after 8 p.m. and I was fading fast (short night last night). But before my clothes were out of the dryer, the bagels were done. All it took was a little two-minute bath in some boiling water and 10 minutes in the oven. Voila! Three weeks' worth of weekday breakfast complete! I bag each bagel individually in sandwich bags and then shove as many sandwich bags as I can into a gallon freezer bag. I take a gallon bag to work with me, and when I get to work in the morning, I pull one out of the freezer, let it sit on my desk for about a half hour, and then it's ready to pop in the toaster. Easy peasy.

Since I've mastered Peter Reinhart's bagel recipe, the next goal I've set for myself is to tackle the ever-intimidating, always time-consuming Martha. I've always been of the opinion that Martha Stewart is a hack. Of course she can do all these dumb crafts and make fancy, professional-looking pastry - the woman has staff who do it for her! And if she's actually doing it herself, bully for her. She has staff to attend to everything else while she bakes! I don't have staff. I have a demanding full-time job, a second... never mind. We covered all that in the first paragraph. Simply put, she's a big old fraud. Ain't nobody got time for all that.

Enter my mother-in-law. She knows how much I love to bake and cook, so for Christmas a few years back, she thoughtfully gave me a huge recipe book: Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook. I eagerly poured over the pages looking for my first recipe to make. And then Sweet Brown's words starting rolling through my head again: AIN'T NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THAT! And it's spent the years since sitting on my recipe book shelf in my kitchen, taunting me. But now I think it's time to dust it off and tackle old Martha. I may not be a stay-at-home wife, but I know I can make time for this. I will not let this book continue to tease and berate me from the shelf. I can find the time to make croissants, dammit.

I'm sitting here on Sunday night reflecting over my weekend. This weekend I managed to do the following:
  1. Go to the gym
  2. Deep-clean my bathroom
  3. Bake a cake with this AMAZING strawberry cream cheese/buttercream/whipped cream frosting
  4. Make a batch of 16 bagels
  5. Do my grocery shopping and other errand-running
  6. Have lunch at a new restaurant with the Big Guy
  7. Go to a girls' night in party and have some fun
  8. Go to church
  9. Make pancakes for breakfast
  10. Visit with the in-laws, who dropped by to deliver some farm-fresh eggs
  11. Go to a Scentsy party
  12. Make pumpkin chocolate chip blondies (SO good)
  13. Fix meatloaf with mashed potatoes and corn for dinner tonight
  14. Fix a big pot of chili to eat throughout this week since it's Fall Festival week and I won't be home at all
  15. Wash and dry two loads of laundry and fold the leaning tower of previously done laundry
  16. Write this blog post
And I STILL got to take two naps, and I'll be hitting the sheets at a respectable 10:15 p.m. tonight. Not too shabby. See, it's all about having a plan and sticking to it. Here are a few planning tips that have made my crazy life a little bit more manageable:
  • Before going to the grocery store on Friday night or Saturday morning, sit down and plan exactly what you're going to cook for the next seven days. Assign a meal - or a dining out break - to each day. Then build your shopping list accordingly. Not only will you spend less money at the grocery store if you stick to a list, but you'll have less food waste at the end of the week if you stick to your meal plan.
  • On Friday evening, outline the "must-accomplish" tasks for your weekend. Jot them down on a scrap of paper or in your phone. Do those things first so you can have time left to play.  
  • Enlist your partner's help. This weekend's baking/cooking adventures were made possible only by the mad dishwashing skilz of the Big Guy. He kept the kitchen in tip-top shape between every recipe so I didn't lose valuable time on clean-up. And he left me alone during my naps. I love that guy. 

What are your tips for better time management? And what are your thoughts on baking with yeast? Do you do it? Why or why not? Comment below. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Now it's after 10 p.m. and I'm beat. Good night! Gym time comes early tomorrow!


  1. I'd have to like yeast bread/rolls a LOT more to take the time to knead anything or wait for it to rise. I'm happy enough with getting the occasional yeast fix at O'Charley's. You amaze me though. You're making my already tired butt want to pass out. Of course, I've had an unusually productive weekend getting the booth set up for the Fall Festival. I enjoy having an "accomplishment" that doesn't involved mothering but chairing the booth is quite the task with two little ones in tow. Go YOU!!!

    1. I guess I should've clarified that I'm a carb junkie and freaking LOVE bread and other yeasty, doughy treats. And you say I make you tired, but just the THOUGHT of chasing after two little ones every day makes me need to go take a lie-down, and the hint of chairing a Fall Festival booth makes me want to take a valium. Seriously. Go YOU!!

  2. You are 100% right about the yeast temperature! Using a thermometer to check the water or milk made a huge difference. Also, my house is not warm enough as a general rule for first and second risings, so I learned this trick from a baking blog: turn your oven on the lowest setting and let it warm up while you're mixing your ingredients. Then turn the oven off, cover your bowl with a tea towel and then set it inside to proof. Makes a huge difference! I plan to make up a few batches of pizza dough to freeze. Then I can just take the dough out in the morning and let it thaw to be ready to use for dinner when we get home.

    1. Great suggestion about using a warm oven for proofing! I have a REALLY warm windowsill that I usually use, but I have gone the oven route in the dead of winter or when the windowsill has been otherwise occupied. Thanks for the suggestion! And let me know what you think of the pizza dough!