Sunday, August 24, 2014

Starting from Scratch: Fresh Bread from a Wild Yeast Starter

You know those parenting classes they used to give in high school? Those ones where you have to carry around a fake baby and pretend to feed it and nurse it when it cries and try to maintain a normal sleep schedule?

Well I have a better idea. Forget carrying around fake plastic babies--make students carry wild yeast starters.

My baby.
A starter is, unlike a synthetic infant, a living create--er--culture. It is the natural, non-packaged precursor to the dry pellets that most of us nowadays to leaven our bread. That's right: inside this soupy mush of bread flour and water is a horde of tiny microorganisms that hold the key to making a fresh and extremely delicious loaf of bread.

Before you give me a weird look, consider that this is the way people have been making bread for centuries. A true wild yeast culture is what imparts to bread it's subtle, fermented taste. (In fact, sourdough bread's classic aroma comes from the particular variety of starter used to make it.) On the other hand, packaged yeast has its own distinctive and sometimes distracting taste. Also, interestingly, starters tend to take on a different taste depending on where they are located, as they adopt some of the yeast cultures floating in the air (San Francisco sourdough, anyone?). The point is, that using a starter permits you to make delicious, authentic, rich, and unique loaves of bread.

A starter rises in much the same way bread does. The starter took up about half this volume when I fed it that morning. You can even see the air pockets against the edge of the jar.
Quite similarly to a baby, a starter needs care and attention to grow. From the inception to the project to the point where you can even attempt a baked good takes about two weeks. Your actual yeast comes from the skin of a batch of unwashed organic grapes, which you swaddle in a cheesecloth and let marinate in a mixture of flour and water for a few days to let the yeast inoculate*. Also like a baby, a starter needs to eat. Once you remove the grapes, you have to nurse your nascent culture to strength by feeding it as much as three times a day--presumably doubling its bulk with every feeding. Quickly do that calculation and you'll realize how much extra starter--and how much flour!--was involved in that process!**

I found this picture from when I made my starter about a year ago. You can see the grape-stained cheesecloth inside the jar. It actually did vaguely resemble a diaper. Yup, that was an interesting thing to have sitting around the kitchen.
And just as a baby, a starter cannot afford to be neglected. I know, because I almost killed my starter the other day

I was being lazy and hadn't fed it for a few days. At that point I happened to look over at it and noticed its decidedly unpropitious condition. It had a dark gray layer of coagulation on top and a decidedly orange rim around the edges. It smelled absolutely rancid. Plugging my nose, I fished out the grey skin with a wooden spoon and poured out as much off the top as I could spare. I removed the rest of the starter from its normal habitat in its glass jar to a large bowl and fed it immediately and regularly for the next few days. It took a couple days, but eventually it started showing signs of life--bubbling, faint fermented scent--and the bacteria didn't come back. Lesson learned!

Let this project be the final confirmation that my starter has returned to robust health! Yet another reason parenting a starter is more akin to parenting children than is looking after a doll: the fruit of your labor might grow up to make you delicious bread! (Well, if you're my parents, anyway ;) )

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Skirts in Seconds: Square Skirt Pattern Generator!

I've got a special present for everyone today!!!

Lately I've been working on a new project: teaching myself some computer coding! Now when I write my blog I can do fun things like use fancy font or give you a magic cursor right here. Whoo!!!!

Naturally, as soon as I unlocked my hitherto unbeknownst computer-harnessing superpowers, my first thought was to figure out how to use them to make more clothes faster. (I should say, to help YOU make more clothes faster, because writing this program definitely took longer than making a skirt ;) )

If you've been following my blog, you'll remember that near the beginning of the summer I made a dress featuring a square skirt of a specific waist measurement and length. A little while later I wrote a tutorial explaining how to put together a square skirt to your precise specifications using geometry and a calculator.

Today, the computer is going to do it all for you ;)

Go on, check it out! It's pretty cool (if I do say so myself).

Square Skirt Pattern Generator

Waist Measurement:
Waist Ease:
Desired Maximum Skirt Length:
OR Desired Minimum Skirt Length:

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Turning out Tarte Tatin

Here it is. The moment of truth.

You manage this, and your two hours of hulling produce, reducing caramel, kneading pastry, and trying to improvise an airtight turkey baster will (maybe) be rewarded spectacularly. If you mess it up, not only is your desert ruined, but you're risking everything from the fate of your glass cookware to personal injury.

All you have to do to unlock the (potential) glory of your exquisitely crafted dessert is to upend a heavy cast-iron pan filled with scalding liquid onto a breakable platter wearing padded mittens that wouldn't look out of place on an Eskimo.

But boy is the result worth it.

I present la tarte tatin.

Here's the basic methodology behind a tarte tatin: start by making a simple caramel out of butter and sugar (um, yum) in a stovetop saucepan. You delicately arrange an interlocking starburst of apple slices onto the bottom of the pan and then heap the thing with as many apples as you can physically stack. You cook them into tender submission, basting them in lemon juice and sugar until the entire filling is rendered with delicious caramel. Now here's the interesting part: once the apples are done baking, the pie crust goes on top of the filling; you cover the fruit with a circle of dough and bake the entire production in the oven until the crust browns and hardens. At that point, you flip the entire dessert so that the crust is actually on the bottom of the tart. Prepare for the moment of truth!

According to the fantastical land of error-free modern baking media, the tarte tatin is a masterpiece of foresight wherein the baker meticulously blueprints and lays out her fruit on the base of the pan (the top of the tart, remember?) and the final release is an all-or-nothing revelation of the success of the original vision. Here's an example of what television says an outturned tarte tatin should look like:

According to real life, your carefully organized design of lemon-coated crescents have likely already been prodded aside by your turkey baster, smashed by the adjacent layer of apples, and in all probability glued to the bottom of the pan by that lovely caramel you created.

Here's what a real outturned tarte tatin looks like.
But never fear! With a spatula and a delicate pair of fingers, you can put your tart back together like nothing happened. I promise. If you don't believe me that retroactively reconstituting your tarte tatin is valid baking practice, just ask Julia Child. After watching this chef turn out her own tarte tatin you will feel much better about your own kitchen!

(Thank goodness for Julia Child.)

This was my first time making tarte tatin, and this recipe came out gorgeously. I think the trick is making sure that each component--the caramel, the apples, the crust--are all cooked properly in their turn, even if you have to cook them for longer than strictly called for, and the tart just eventually comes together compliantly.

My mom loves tarte tatin, and by her declaration, this dish was the best tarte tatin she has ever tasted.

(Which is a good thing, because it means I'm allowed to keep buying butter and getting flour all over the kitchen. Phew!)

Here's the recipe!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Marfy's Sleeves Weren't Good Enough for Me

Hello readers! I'm afraid it's been a little while between posts :( I've succumbed to the summertime temptation of wearing swimsuits instead of sewing them and cooking without wearing a camera! But hey I'm not going to dwell on it because

Hopefully someone still remembers my most recent project ;) That is: my quest to recreate this Marfy pattern using minimal, mainly Google-derived pattern-drafting skills: 

                               Marfy's pattern --> my pattern. NOT THE FINISHED GARMENT. Just the muslin ;) 
In my last blog post, I covered how I drafted the body of the dress and the color-blocked style lines using dart rotation and princess seams. This time, I'm going to explain how I drafted the sleeves to go along with my Marfy knock-off. 

And guess what: they're not the sleeves in the Marfy pattern! I decided that to add a little pizzazz to my final garment, I'm going to design some crazy avant-garde sleeves. Because what's the point of customizing a pattern if it's not going to be custom?

But first things first. I figured that before I started constructing my original-by-Anelise shoulder adornments it was probably smart to start with a basic sleeve block. The best style for what I was looking to make was a simple tight-fitting set-in sleeve.

Thankfully, I found an excellent tutorial online for how to create a set-in sleeve from scratch using just a bodice pattern! This tutorial is not an exact science and I am positive it is not correct pattern-drafting technique but hey, it worked, and I ended up with a sleeve that fit my garment perfectly. My only comment is that sleeve cap ease (the fullness, or puffiness of the sleeve at the shoulder) using this tutorial is directly correlated to ease in the sleeve band (the part that goes around your arm), so if you're looking for something specific like a really full sleeve you might have to use more sophisticated techniques. But I ended up with this beautiful little pattern!

Excuse the sharpie marks...
My own drafted-by-hand-actually-resembles-a-bell-shape sleeve pattern! Whoopee!!!
Now for the fun stuff!