Monthly Archives: April 2008

Baking Tales: Meet “Barm,” The Sourdough Starter

I spent the weekend making bread, bread and more bread! I’m working from the cookbook “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice,” which is by far the best book I’ve ever used for making bread. The instructions are crystal clear and all of my breads thus far have turned out beautifully. Plus, Peter Reinhart, the author, includes a variety of techniques for shaping beautiful loaves.

But before I get ahead of myself, I’d like you to meet “barm,” the newest member of my pet family (in addition to barm, we have two cats and a dog). Barm is a culture of wild yeast and bacteria used for making sourdough breads. Every fourth day or so, barm gets a feeding of fresh flour and water and goes crazy, bubbling away in its container. (Check out barm at right!).

Many people assume that what makes sourdough sour is the wild yeast. The sourness actually comes from the lactic acid bacteria that feed on the byproducts of the yeast fermentation. Commercial yeast usually cannot survive in this sour medium, but the wild yeast can, which is why this is such a symbiotic relationship. The yeast fermentation is usually faster than the bacterial one, so it takes time to develop the unique sour flavor we associate with sourdough; I’ve been nurturing barm (others call this the “starter” or “mother sponge”) for weeks now and it has developed a really nice complex taste.

Why does sourdough taste different from place to place? Wild yeast — present in the air and naturally in flour — varies quite a bit from location to location, which is why my sourdough will always taste different than San Francisco sourdough or New York sourdough.

Baking bread, by the way, is much, much easier than most people envision. Although many recipes call for an exact fermentation time, I’ve found that I can create the dough, leave it in a warm place and go work out or read for a few hours before coming back to a beautifully risen dough.

If you want to start your own barm or “mother sponge,” beware that it takes days before you can use it for your sourdough. The recipe is in “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.” It’s pretty low-maintenance, but takes its time to develop the flavors you are looking for. You can also get free starter from a group called “Friends of Carl,” which has saved starter from 1847! Check it out at


Posted by on April 28, 2008 in Breads, Food Reads


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Pinkberry: Tangy? Yes. Sweet? Yes. Natural? Not really.

As a result of a class-action lawsuit, Pinkberry was recently forced to divulge the ingredients of its ever-popular frozen “yogurt.” The company, which has spread around the country as fast as super cute cupcake shops, has claimed that its products were all-natural.

Um, not so much.

According to this New York Times article by Julia Moskin, Pinkberry includes:

  • skim milk
  • nonfat yogurt
  • sucrose
  • fructose
  • dextrose
  • propylene glycol esters (emulsifier)
  • lactoglycerides (emulsifier)
  • sodium acid pyrophosphate (emulsifier)
  • mono- and diglycerides (emulsifier)
  • magnesium oxide
  • calcium fumarate
  • citric acid (vitamin C)
  • sodium citrate
  • tocopherol (vitamin E)
  • starch (filler)
  • maltodextrin (filler)
  • guar gum
  • plus five more…

Doesn’t sound quite as healthy anymore, does it?


Posted by on April 23, 2008 in Food Reads, Restaurant Buzz, Uncategorized


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Buffalo. It’s What’s For Dinner

I used to be a turkey burger girl.

At summer BBQs, while everyone would be wolfing down their beef patties, I would meekly ask for turkey. My favorite burger spots were defined by whether or not the turkey burger was available.

But after a while, I found myself missing something. Many turkey burgers are nearly flavorless and the patties I tried at home were dry. I tried dressing them up with buckets of mustard and ketchup, but after a while, that’s all I would taste.

But no more. I’ve switched to buffalo.

Buffalo, or bison, arrived in North America about 10,000 years ago (they crossed through the Bering Strait). They were once on the verge of extinction after being hunted ferociously for their hides, but were saved my ranchers in South Dakota and Montana. Today, nearly all of the bison available for human consumption is ranched.

So why bison? Unlike beef, which is usually fed hormones, antibiotics and loads of corn, most bison available is grass-fed. The meat is lower in fat and cholesterol than beef (and than some cuts of turkey!) and it’s both juicy and flavorful. Check out the nutritional profile of bison burgers here. Then compare that to a regular burger!

In general, I do not support the consumption of meat every single day. I agree with Michael Pollan that we need to eat less meat and more veggies. But if a meat craving hits, bison is my way to go.

My favorite buffalo burger brand, btw, is Great Range Brand. Served with a whole grain bun, tomato, lettuce and a few pickles… Mmmm… Add a few sweet potato wedges and I’m in heaven 🙂

(photo credit:

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Posted by on April 23, 2008 in Meat


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Spanakopita Reinvented

Spanakopita — the crispy, flaky, tender, Greek spinach-feta pie — has a special place in my heart. Back when I was running around the mean streets of Chicago covering crime for the Chicago Tribune, I arrived home one night utterly exhausted. So exhausted, in fact, that I had no energy to eat, much less cook. C came over with a plate of Spanakopita and as I ate each bite of the flavorful spinach pie, my energy reserves were slowly recharged. I begged him for months to show me how to make it and a few weeks ago, he finally caved.

The basic recipe is pretty straight-forward. You can purchase frozen phyllo dough at your local grocery store. I like Athens’ twin-pack, which is perfect for making two spinach pies. Always a fan of experimentation, I modified the recipe a little bit and added roasted red bell peppers for color and basil for flavor. Although it looks intimidating, spanakopita is really easy to make and perfect for packing for a picnic or a take-away lunch.

Michelle’s Spanakopita


1/2 package of Athens’ twin pack phyllo dough

1 bag of frozen spinach

2 jars of roasted red bell peppers (from Trader Joe’s — you can find them next to the olives), drained. Dry the bell peppers with paper towels to remove the rest of the liquid.

handful of basil leaves

1 3.5oz package of low-fat feta cheese

3 Tbsp butter or Smart Balance, melted

1 egg yolk

Ground pepper


A good tip to know before you start. In between layers, cover your phyllo dough first with plastic wrap and then with a damp cloth. This will keep it from drying before you finish.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Select two or three sheets of phyllo dough and, using a pastry brush, carefully brush over with butter. Place the sheets of phyllo dough butter-side down into a glass or ceramic pan and brush the top sheet with butter.

2. Add about a half-inch layer of frozen spinach on top of the buttered phyllo and sprinkle cheese on top of the spinach. Sprinkle with a little ground pepper.

3. Butter another two or three phyllo sheets and cover the spinach.

4. Flatten the bell peppers and add a layer on top of the buttered phyllo dough.

5. Repeat the layering until all of your spinach and bell peppers are gone.

6. After the last spinach layer, cover the pie with another few sheets of phyllo, butter the sheets and spread a thin layer of basil leaves and a sprinkle of black pepper before covering the pie with more buttered phyllo.
7. If you have any phyllo left, butter every few sheets and continue placing on the pie until you’ve finished.

8. Create an egg wash by whipping the egg in a small bowl and then dip your pastry brush into the wash, adding a layer of egg yolk on the top layer of phyllo dough.

9. Bake in the oven for about 20-25 minutes or until the top layer of phyllo is a nice golden brown.

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Posted by on April 23, 2008 in quick dinner


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Culver City = Foodie Haven

With my trusty Cole Haan heels in my bag and a copy of Elle magazine in hand (hey, I was heading to the La La Land — aka the land of the superficial), I hopped onto Amtrak and headed down to Los Angeles this last weekend. The boy and I stayed in a hotel in Culver City, so I decided to make our evening plans in the environs and made plans with Christa and her boy to meet up.

Culver City has brilliantly rebranded itself. Once a decaying exurb bordering Santa Monica, it is now a vibrant, trendy hub filled with beautiful people clinking glasses and eating gastropub fare. Ford’s Filling Station, owned by Harrison Ford’s son, lies within the city limits and Fraiche, which has the second most requested reservations on in LA (according to Christa), is only a few yards away.

We started off at BottleRock, as per Christa’s suggestion, which is a fabulous little wine bar with a huge wine menu and a pretty thick beer book as well. The metal high chairs and bar tables paired nicely with the bar’s sleek interior and the wine racks on the side added a bit o’ humor with funny signs such as “effin’ merlot” and “pinot envy.”

The boys choose beer while Christa and I selected some wines. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m very into wine these days, so I ordered a 2003 Cordon Syrah — dusty, earthy, dark plum jam flavors — and shared fruit-and-nut bread crostini with the boyfriend (who got the PranQster Belgian Style Golden Ale — my new favorite beer — fruity and crisp), which were topped with crispy prosciutto. Christa and her boy shared a truffle grilled cheese sandwich which looked quite tasty as well. Glasses by the wine range from about $6 to $65 for the most expensive wines.

We skedaddled over to Tender Greens — a casual spot that serves a variety of fresh tossed salads — and watched as our meals were prepared in front of our eyes. Compared to most of the restaurant spots in the area, Tender Greens is pretty inexpensive. I opted for the steak salad, which featured several slices of rare, juicy steak topped on mesclun, while the boy picked the vegan salad. His dish had several grain salads and a big scoop of delicious green hummus all topped with fresh mixed greens.

We ended the night with some gelato from Ugo — a conetto and chocolate concoction that was creamy and rich (and pricey! $4.60 for gelato! what is this? Starbucks?) and thus ended our Culver City jaunt.

I most definitely recommend a visit or two (or three!) if you haven’t made it to this little gem. Street parking is available (and for the most part free after 6 p.m.) and the hip, unpretentious ambiance is most welcoming here in La La Land.

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Posted by on April 21, 2008 in Restaurant Buzz, Wine


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Drink Up: “The History of the World in Six Glasses”

Beer, yes, beer — has made history. And no, we’re not talking about the hazy stories told the morning after beer-soaked frat parties — we’re talking thousands of years of real history. Who knew that the bubbly, fermented beverage was once a form of currency in ancient Mesopotamia? Or that Egyptian mothers were urged to give beer to their children?

I feel like much was edited out of my history textbooks, likely the result of overzealous parents hoping to shield their innocent children from any book containing the word alcohol. But to censor alcohol is to censor history — the oldest forms of writing in several cultures include the intoxicating elixir. Fortunately, Tom Sandage’s book, “The History of the World in Six Glasses”, has filled in those critical gaps.

Sandage — the technology editor for the Economist — regales us with tales of how beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola have shaped history. And unlike your dry history books of yore, Sandage has full of cocktail party-worthy tidbits (and has any topic ever been more interesting for a cocktail party?) that keep you intrigued. Who knew, for instance, that tea began as a medicinal gruel in China, mixed in with garlic, shallots and ginger? Or that Coca-Cola was exempted from sugar rationing during World War II so that it could be sent abroad to the troops to keep up morale?

What’s funny is that while reading the book, you recognize that, well, some things haven’t changed. Greek and Roman wine buffs distinguished between wines of different regions and prided themselves on their knowledge. In ancient Rome, wine became a symbol of social differentiation, of status and class. “For wealthy Romans, the ability to recognize and name the finest wines was an important form of conspicuous consumption; it showed that they were rich enough to afford the finest wines and had spent time learning which was which.”

Hmmm… sounds to me quite a lot like modern readers of Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast!

My only complaint is that the book is too short. Sandage picks only several periods in history to highlight as he talks about the influences of these drinks when we well know that some of their influence stretches across different cultures and eras. For instance, how can you tell the story of coffee while mentioning modern coffee empires like Starbucks in only one line? Or how to talk about the history of wine without mentioning new regions like California, Chile and Argentina? Clearly, each of these drinks deserves a volume and it’s difficult to include everything, but all in all, the book is quite fun to read.

Some of my favorite facts (take these to your next wine-and-cheese — you’re sure to impress):

  • Coca-Cola still includes extracts from the koca plant, from which it was initially derived
  • In 1671, French doctors decried that coffee caused impotence and burned the blood (they did so at the behest of wine merchants who feared for their livelihood)
  • “Coca-Cola” is said to be the second most understood phrase in the world after “OK”
  • The word “alcohol” is derived from the Arabic “al-koh’l”; the Arabs became master distillers around 1000 A.D.
  • The first stockmarkets started in European coffehouses
  • The British began adding sugar and tea to their milk in order to mask the bitter and often adulterated beverage (merchants added loose leaves, ash, sawdust — even sheep’s dung to stretch the tea)
  • Sailors in the 1600 and 1700s were able to prevent scurvy by drinking “grog:” rum, lemon juice, water and spices on board
  • Greeks and Romans almost always drank their wine with water
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Posted by on April 21, 2008 in Food Reads, Wine


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Make space for the good stuff in the kitchen

Poring over the Williams Sonoma catalog, my heart begins to yearn. Heart-shaped waffle makers, ice cream machines, panini presses… sigh, I love kitchen gadgets. The idea that you can make everything at home, from paninis to creme brulee to pesto is incredibly alluring. Fellow foodies can relate. One trip to Sur La Table and your wallet instantly feels lighter.

But even the fanatics can recognize buys that were not worth their dough.

Many of my friends are building up their kitchens or creating a wedding registry. From my time cooking, here are some ideas on how to stock your kitchen — and some gadgets/appliances to cross off your shopping list.

Get This: Food Processor/Blender

Not That: Blender


Reduce kitchen clutter by getting one appliance that serves two functions rather than two appliances. Cuisinart’s duet food processor/blender lets you create perfect smoothies and margaritas with the blender. With a quick swap of a few parts, you’re ready to make pesto and hummus with the food processor. Cuisinart is the best brand for food processors and their blenders are top notch.

Get This: Vita-Mix Turbo Blender

Not That: Juicer


Although the Vita-Mix is pricey ($350-$400) it is by far the best way to make juice. Rather than separating the pulp from the juice like regular juicers, the Vita-Mix’s powerful blades create silky, nutritious juice that retains all of the fiber and vitamins. Plus, throw in some frozen fruit and yogurt into the Vita-Mix and in a matter of minutes you have the creamiest frozen yogurt you’ve ever tasted. Try doing that with a juicer.

Get This: KitchenAid Stand Mixer

Not That: KitchenAid Hand Mixer


Versatility. The hand mixer can whip egg whites and beat brownie mix, but with the KitchenAid stand mixer, a new world of possibilities opens up to you. You can make pasta dough, pizza dough and bread — oh, the bread. I’m sighing right now just thinking about it. Yes, it’s a significant upgrade, but well worth it.

Get This: Bodum French Press

Not That: Fancy Espresso Machine


Don’t get me wrong, having fresh espresso in the morning is pure luxury. Having an espresso machine, however, is more trouble than its worth. At first, you go through the honeymoon period, lavishing the machine with love as you make your espressos and machiattos every day. Then the problems begin: it’s a hassle to clean, some part begins to malfunction. Soon enough, it’s just a big hunk of plastic and metal relegated to a dark corner in your kitchen. Avoid the pain and frustration with a French Press from Bodum. A few scoops of coffee and some hot water and voila, you have fragrant, rich coffee with none of the bitterness of drip coffee. Clean up is a snap and if it breaks, you’re out $30, not $300+.


Posted by on April 18, 2008 in Uncategorized


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