One of the most frequently used words I’ve been seeing in reference to recipes lately is “comforting”. And rightly so! There’s a time and a place for eating only what best fuels the body. And certainly that time is partially now, as eating a well-rounded and colorful diet helps to keep us healthy in body and mind, doing its part to calm a mind cramped in captivity. But for me at least, now is a time to be a little easy on myself when it comes to what I’m making and eating. There is very little in my control right now. Some of the things that I used to do to bring me peace and calm anxiety are not possible. But what I cando is make foods that comfort the nerves. Eating tasty food releases dopamine. And right now a little extra of that with some classic comfort food couldn’t hurt. So here are some of the comforts I’ve been cooking up of late.
Bread: Challah (French Toast)
What better way to kick the already glorious carb of bread up a notch than adding some eggs, butter, and sugar? That enriched scent is one worthy of being made into a candle as it bakes in the oven. On top of all that, the nutty-brown braided loaf of a challah is an aesthetic masterpiece (if done well…let’s just say my braiding needs practice). But how do you make thateven better? More eggs, butter, and sugar! Challah is the best French toast bread. While on a certain level I know this is only my opinion, it’s difficult to not assert it as fact. Its crust and crumb make it ideal for soaking up the egg/milk/spice mixture without falling apart, but still getting enough of it to achieve a truly custardy inside. And the bread itself already has a French-toast like flavor base with its egg and sugar. So, use it to make actual French toast and you’re just maximizing your flavor!
I’ve done a handful of French toast riffs in the past, one of my favorites being this recipe, courtesy of Binging with Babish, that I made for Christmas brunch a couple years back. But this Sunday brunch I was craving something bright and citrusy to mirror the emerging spring season, yet still with a little interesting spice thrown in the mix. This was the perfect time to break out the spice popular with The Great British Baking Showcrew that doesn’t get much love here in the states. I speak, of course, of cardamom. Why we don’t care for cardamom as much as those in, well, every other part of the world it seems, I don’t know. But mix it with some lemon and soak it into some thickly sliced challah and you’ve got yourself a Sunday Brunch winner with the perfect palate to burst into the rest your day with gusto.
Gadget: Plastic Proofing Bin
There is nothing wrong with proofing your bread in whatever mixing bowls you have on hand. Our largest metal mixing bowl has certainly spent its share of time sitting on the counter with some dough rising at room temperature. But after numerous occasions uncovering a patchwork of cling wrap to try and discern if the dough was “doubled or trebled in size” or just a little puffy, my Mom and I knew there had to be a better way. So when we took our previously mentioned trip to King Arthur Flourlast summer and came across their proofing binsin the store, we knew we had to give it a try.
That bin turned out to be one of the best baking purchases we have ever made. Its benefits are threefold. 1. Due to being transparent and having measurements on the side, I can actually, definitively seewhen the dough is doubled. There’s no guesstimating based off of bowl-relativity. I can see exactly how high my dough sits when I place it in and how high it gets as the hours pass. And I’m doubly assured of my proofing success by being able to see the bubbles forming as it climbs up the see-through sides. 2. A cubical container has proven to be more effective for loaf formation than a bowl. It certainly made the inherently rectangular focaccia formation even easier as I eased it into its pan. And the difference it makes when trying to achieve the extremely delicate task of turning out ciabatta dough while barely touching itto form a beautiful loaf is immeasurable. When you’re starting off with a dough that’s already long and loaf-like rather than a ball in need of stretching, the chances of dough-disruption are significantly lessened. 3. The bin has its own, sealable lid! Not only am I wasting farless plastic wrap, but it’s more reliably covered! Because let’s face it, getting cling wrap to actually clingto some things can be an impossible task. At least one area will refuse to adhere, leaving a hole for air to pass through. And to cover a bowl big enough for proofing I often need at least two long strips to try and fully cover it. But with bin and lid in hand I’m not wasting disposable plastics in vain! If you are among the hordes of people just getting into bread baking right now and are planning to continue the practice on a regular basis, I’d seriously consider a bin for yourself. And if you’re concerned about shelf space, it’s a bin! Put some of your bulkier gadgets already taking up space that can be easily taken out when the bread baking strikes!
Drink: Aquafaba (In a Whiskey Sour)
I distinctly remember when I first learned that egg whites were a common cocktail ingredient. I was at a company event to hang out with some of my fellow interns, staff, and current cast members at a cocktail bar in Pittsfield, MA. My friend and I walked in and as she went to go to the bar and order we saw the bartender crack an egg into a shaker, and proceed to shake and pour. I was still underage at the time and, looking like a twelve-year-old boy, was not even allowed in the premises of most bars. My friend was freshly 21 and new to being able to attend bars herself, so we were rather taken aback to see raw egg being drunk. But I have since learned of its common application in cocktails. Most notably, the whiskey sour. The egg white, when shaken with ice, makes for a creamier texture, and a foamy topping that would otherwise be missing.
But in my home-bound sour making, I have been subtracting the egg. While I trust the egg handling of a bartender, I’m leery of cracking an egg in myself. And since it is a totally textural addition and I can essentially still make the drink without it, I have not gone the extra, eggy step. That is, until I found myself with some aquafabaon hand. When draining some chickpeas for hummus last weekend, my Mom thought to keep the liquid from the can – aquafaba – for making meringue for macarons. This is probably the most famous use for the liquid, making it a great vegan baking tool. But I wondered if it would also substitute as well in the cocktail application of egg-whites. After doing a little googling, it seemed to be so! I decided to test it on the next whiskey sour. Just a tablespoon or two was added along with the whiskey, lemon juice, and maple syrup I used instead of simple syrup, and shaken well with a couple cubes of ice. It strained out into the glass thick and frothy like any good sour should. And I still have plenty left for macaron making! Thank you, vegan ingenuity, for giving me frothy sours that can be consumed safely and responsibly without raw egg anxiety!
Meal: Sausage Bolognese
Anyone who knows me knows that when in doubt, Italian food is the thing. A creamy alfredo, an herbaceous roasted chicken, any oniony, garlicky, basil-y dish, especially involving pasta, is the way to my heart. It’s the smells and flavors of family. It’s weekend dinners of long-cooking tomatoes and sausage wafting through the house, melding with the fresh-baked ciabatta that’s beginning its transformation into garlic bread. One of the greatest things about such sauces are their “set it and forget it” nature. Yes, I’m ideally starting my prep for dinner at 3:30pm (I was about an hour later this week, but the other beauty is, it doesn’t really matter that much!), but once the sausage is seared, the mirepoix (chopped onion, carrot, celery) is soft and translucent, the wine has done its deglazing, and the stock, tomatoes, and milk are in, I can leave that baby to bubble for hours until I’m ready to throw in my pasta (and pasta water!) and serve.
Typically, I would be using the trusty can of San Marzanos for any tomato-based sauce application, but with our stock of them run out for the time being, I improvised with a couple cans of stewed tomatoes. And while these were perfectly serviceable, I would be more inclined to add another can of stewed, or some canned diced tomatoes to the mix. The stewed-only Bolognese was a little less thick and tomatoey than I would like despite reducing all the liquids properly. My theory is that stewed tomatoes simply have less actual tomato in the can and more liquid. The diced tomatoes would perhaps add a little more substance. But a less bulky sauce did mean it easily made its way into all the nooks and crannies of the rotini. And the ciabatta I had made that morning, (my best yet I do believe), was able to soak up the warm, saucy goodness that was left in its plentifully irregular bubbles. Pair it all with a glass of red wine (which was used in the sauce) and I cannot imagine a meal better suited for lifting the spirits.
Melty chocolate. Crumbly graham cracker. A perfectly toasted (or quickly burnt and blown-on) marshmallow. The simple pleasure of s’mores speaks for itself. Sweet treats don’t always have to be a long process of technical baking excellence. While I love spending an entire day making layers of cake and trying my best to pipe frosting with precision, sometimes all I want is three pre-packaged, mass-market ingredients, a little heat, and a napkin for inevitable marshmallow spillage. Whether constructed while huddled over a fire pit under the stars listening to the spring peepers sing or swaddled in pajamas and a fuzzy blanket carefully watching the toaster oven, the result is just as good. The childhood camp classic is quick, comfort food goodness. A simple pleasure for any night, served however you need, however you like. And after a long day of remote work, childcare, job searching, or general stressing, simple pleasure is just what you need.
Of course, comfort food is different for everyone! When I go red sauce, maybe you go soy! When I go chocolate, maybe you go fruity! What have your go-to’s to battle quarantine blues been? Because just as important as our comfort classics are rut-busting experiments!