Learning about Milk Fat

I learned something new today, thanks to a debate with a friend.

The other day, a friend and I were discussing milk.

I told her I preferred 2% milk but was trying to get to like 1% milk. To me, it was about reducing unnecessary fat and calories in my diet. I’ve been drinking 2% milk for years and actually now prefer its flavor and consistency over whole milk. Whole milk, to me, had become too rich, almost like a light cream. I wanted to start liking 1% milk in an effort to further reduce fat and calories for a healthy diet. I already enjoy fat-free yogurt; indeed, I don’t think I’ve had whole milk yogurt in years, if ever. (Do they even make it? I guess I could make my own.)

My friend was adamantly opposed to reduced fat milk. I gathered from our conversation that she thought they added things to the milk that made it less healthy when they removed the fat. Or that something about the actual process of making reduced fat milk caused it to be less healthy. In any case, she thought reduced fat milk was bad and didn’t want to hear anything else about it.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, especially in the past three or four years, is that when someone is stuck with an idea in their head it’s no use debating the point. At least not without facts. And although I suspected there was nothing unhealthy about reduced fat milk, I had no evidence to prove my point. So I let the subject drop and we chatted about other things.

But this morning, when I sat down with my coffee and some time to kill before dawn, I set about finding some evidence to support my point of view.

How Reduced Fat Milk is Made

I Googled “How do they make reduced fat milk?” I got a number of search results. The first, from The Kitchn website, had the answer I was looking for: “How is Skim Milk Made?“. Here’s the pertinent info:

So how is skim milk made? Traditionally, the fat was removed naturally from milk due to gravity. If fresh milk is left to sit and settle, the cream — which is where most of the fat is — rises to the top, leaving behind milk with much less fat.

The quicker, modernized way of making low-fat and skim milks is to place the whole milk into a machine called a centrifugal separator, which spins some or all of the fat globules out of the milk. This occurs before the milk is homogenized, a process which reduces all the milk particles to the same size so that natural separation doesn’t occur anymore.

The article goes on to provide some other interesting information about milk and fat free milk. Among that information was a note about additives:

Federal law mandates that most skim milk has to be fortified with vitamin A and sometimes vitamin D. This is due to the fact that even though whole milk naturally has a fair amount of both, the vitamins are fat soluble and thus lost when the milk fat is removed during the skimming process.

Milk solids in the form of dried milk are also added since they contain proteins that help thicken the watery consistency of skim milk.

Not only was this likely the additives that worried my friend, but it also explained how some brands of skim milk were far more palatable than others: they likely added back more dried milk to thicken it up.

2% Milk
The only thing that creeps me out about Shamrock Foods milk is its extraordinarily long shelf life: the quart I bought last week is supposedly good until March. Could it be the plastic packaging?

Now I don’t know if the 2% milk I normally consume has a lot of vitamins or any milk fat added back in. The milk in my camper’s refrigerator now — remember, I’m on the road this winter — is from Shamrock Farms and says it contains “reduced fat milk, Vitamins A & D.” Nothing about milk solids.

So nothing I learned about the production of reduced fat milk has scared me away from drinking it.

Benefits of Whole vs. Reduced Fat Milk

Scrolling down in the same search results, however, brought up links to two different articles in TIME Magazine. I read them both. After all, I wanted to learn the truth — a truth that would either support or even change my own opinions.

  • The Case Against Low-fat Milk Is Stronger Than Ever from April 4, 2016 cites a study of people whose health had been tracked for 15 years. The conclusion was that, if anything, people who consumed whole fat dairy products were less likely to be obese or suffer from type 2 diabetes.
  • Why Full-Fat Dairy May Be Healthier Than Low-Fat from March 5, 2015 cites the results of over 25 studies that concluded that “people who eat full-fat dairy are no more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes than people who stick to low-fat dairy. When it comes to weight gain, full-fat dairy may actually be better for you.”

Huh.

Both articles suggested that there might be something special about the fat in dairy that works with our bodies to help them process the foods we eat and help us feel full. Dairy fat could actually be preventing us from eating less healthy sugars and carbs to feel sated. And these articles maintained that it was foolhardy for diets to recommend cutting (or eating) just one kind of nutrient — for example, low fat or fat-free diets — when the body naturally works with all consumed nutrients together.

I understand how these studies could have gotten these results. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the fat-free diet craze was in full swing, stores were full of fat-free processed foods. I know because I still lived at home (or at least visited regularly) and saw that my mother bought them. She, like so many other people, thought that the answer to keeping weight under control was to keep as much fat out of their diets as possible. But rather than do this by eating naturally low fat foods like fruits and vegetables and whole grains, they did it by buying processed foods labeled “fat free.” They then consumed as much as they wanted, not paying attention to the ingredients that made this food taste good despite the lack of fat: mostly sugar. Calorie counts were sky high. It was around this time that I started reading labels and making food choices based on what I read. While I don’t have a perfect diet, I’ve learned to minimize my time in a supermarket’s middle aisles where all the processed foods reside.

The Calorie Argument

Okay, so what about calories? The articles both confirmed that one of the benefits of reduced fat dairy products was the accompanying reduction in calories. So I decided to see just how many calories I was saving by switching between whole, 2%, and 1% milk. (I really detest fat-free milk and generally only have it in lattes because I think it froths better. Fat free yogurt tastes fine to me.)

So I Googled “What is the calorie count for whole, 2%, 1%, and fat free milk?” The PopSugar website had the answer I sought: “Whole vs. Reduced vs. Low-Fat vs. Nonfat Milk.” Here’s the nutritional information that interests me for one 8-ounce cup of milk:

  Whole 2% 1% Fat-free
Calories 150 130 110 90
Total Fat (g / %) 8 / 3 5 / 2 2.5 / 1 ~0 / 0

What’s interesting when you read data in the article’s table is that they all the same fiber, carbs, and protein but 1% and fat-free milks actually have more sugar — although admittedly it isn’t much more: 11g vs. 12g.

Now I don’t drink a lot of milk, although I probably do drink more than the average adult. I’ll go through a half gallon in about a week. Every cup of 2% is saving me only 20 calories over whole milk and a switch down to 1% milk would only save another 20 calories. Is it worth it? I don’t think so.

At this point, I sort of regret getting so used to 2% milk.

An Exercise in Critical Thinking

So what did I learn?

In a way, my friend was right: reduced fat milk isn’t any better for you than whole milk. And if she believed that there were additives, she’s right — although I’m not sure those additives make reduced fat milk any less healthy.

But in a way, she was also wrong: reduced fat milk isn’t really bad for you. It just doesn’t give the health benefits we’ve been led to believe.

As for me, I was wrong. There’s no real reason to switch to reduced fat milk. I have no evidence to show her. I have nothing to stand on for pressing my original point of view.

Will I change the way I buy milk? Probably not — at least for now. I really do like 2% milk. I’m used to it. To me, drinking whole milk is almost like drinking cream. I’m not so picky, however, that I’ll turn down whole milk if that’s the only thing available. I’m not worried about 2% milk hurting my health.

But 1% and fat-free milk have definitely become a little bit less attractive. No real calorie benefit and what’s with the added sugar? And what if milk fat really is good for you? Should I really be minimizing it?

And that’s what critical thinking is all about, folks. Gathering information and forming your own opinions after thinking about what you’ve learned. Even if you begin researching with a preconceived notion, you need to be ready to change your mind when the evidence clearly tells you your notion is wrong. You shouldn’t just look for evidence that supports your view. You should look for evidence that tells the whole story, the true story, or at least the story that properly conducted research and established facts support.

I sure wish more people would learn to think critically in today’s world.

Homemade Brie

And other new adventures in cheesemaking.

Way back in September 2013, when I was still living in my fifth wheel RV (the “Mobile Mansion”), I got interested in cheesemaking. I took a class at a local cheesemaking facility (which closed down the following year when they lost the land lease they needed to graze their sheep) and even tried making a few cheeses myself. Trouble was, my RV kitchen was tiny and if there’s one thing cheesemaking requires, it’s space. So I packed up the cheesemaking gear I’d invested in and set it aside until I had a real kitchen again.

200 Homemade Cheeses
I highly recommend this book, 200 Easy Homemade Cheeses, to anyone just getting started making cheese.

Artisan Cheese
I also bought this book, Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking, but it’s a bit more advanced than I’m ready for at this point.

In the meantime, I bought and read (or at least browsed through) two cheesemaking books and heard more than a few Splendid Table stories on NPR about making various cheeses.

I should mention here that I’ve been making my own yogurt for at least five or six years. Making yogurt is similar to making cheese, but I think it’s a lot easier.

I moved into my new home in May 2015 and the kitchen certainly was ready for cheesemaking then. But I wasn’t. I’m not sure what finally got me to try again — maybe it was walking past the plastic bin containing all of my cheesemaking equipment that was stored in my garage? — but I finally pulled out my favorite cheesemaking book, ordered the necessary cultures, unpacked the stainless steel pots, etc., and bought four gallons of milk to start making cheese again.

Brie

I decided to start by making brie. I like brie. I can eat brie every day of my life and not get tired of it. What would be better than making my own?

I had two recipes. One was from the Splendid Table website. The other was from my favorite cheesemaking book.I can’t remember why, but I decided to go with the one in the book. It may have been because it provided instructions for adding calcium chloride, which is pretty much required when making cheese from homogenized milk. I didn’t have an affordable source of raw milk — no, I won’t pay the local health food store $10 per gallon for it — so I knew I’d have to add calcium chloride and I wanted detailed instructions on how much to add and when to add it.

The trick with making cheese is to heat the milk to the exact right temperature — in this case, 88°F — and, if necessary, hold it there. Fortunately, brie doesn’t need a temperature hold. It does require the cheese to drain for about 24 hours at room temperature. What you’re draining off is the whey, which some people drink and I used to give to my chickens (as a good source of protein). Whey from hard cheeses can be further processed into ricotta, but not whey from brie making. Such a shame to let it go down the drain, especially since it accounts for at least half the volume of milk — in this case, a gallon of the two I started with.

After draining, the cheese is ready to ripen in a cheese cave. I don’t have a cheese cave. (I suspect you don’t either.) I originally thought that my dorm-style cube fridge, which I’d bought for my Wickenburg hangar at least 12 years ago and now had in my garage, could be used if set so it barely cooled. Unfortunately, the lowest (highest?) setting still put the temperature below 42°F; I needed a range of 50°F to 55°F. On a whim, I threw the thermometer into my wine fridge. Bingo: 50°F. The ripening containers went right in.

Ripening Brie in a Wine Fridge
Brie in ripening containers in my wine fridge. I was not happy about evicting the wine that was in there and am looking at a new wine fridge to accommodate both wine and cheese. (Support my wine and cheese habit! Buy me this wine fridge and I’ll send you homemade cheese and local wine every month for a year.)

I should mention here that although I bought open-bottom cheesemaking molds and cheese mats from a Cheesemaking supplier — I use The Cheesemaker website — I went local for the ripening containers. Wenatchee has a restaurant supply shop and I bought hard plastic food storage containers that can be stacked to use as ripening containers. I have them in a variety of sizes so I can make just about any size cheese.

Mold on Brie
This photo shows the mold just starting to cover one of the two bries I made. (I used a food mat for this; I’ve since bought real cheese mats.)

What you might not realize is that the white “skin” on brie is actually mold that’s created by the Penicilum candidum added as part of the cheesemaking process. This begins to grow on the cheese after a few days. It kept growing as I flipped the cheeses daily. When the cheese is wrapped, the mold gets flattened down to form that skin. And yes, you can (and should) eat it.

The cheese stayed in the “cave” for a few weeks. Then I had some friends over for dinner and decided to make up a cheese platter for them that included two of my cheeses. The brie was one of them. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite ready, either. Not ripened enough. Still, we all enjoyed it and I’ve been eating it slowly since then. Had some on my eggs this morning. The other cheese — I made two 7-in rounds — just went from “cave” to fridge. I consider it a success and plan on making two more to take with me on my winter travels.

Homemade Brie
This is all that’s left of that first homemade brie. I’m going to use smaller molds next time so the cheese is taller.

Chaource

I used another two gallons of milk to make chaource, which looked like an easy enough recipe in my cheesemaking book. This is also a soft-ripened cheese, but it does not get gooey in the middle like brie does. Actually, I’m not sure how it gets because I’ve never had it and honestly don’t know if the ones I made are really like chaource cheese.

Th difficult part of making this cheese was getting it to 77°F and keeping it there for 12 hours. I rigged up a double-boiler on the warming burner of my stovetop, using a BBQ temperature probe to give me an accurate reading. When it got too warm, I’d turn off the burner. When it got too cool, I’d turn it back on. This was not fun, and if I had to go out that day, I would have ruined the cheese.

Double boiler
I rigged up a double boiler with my canning pot holding water for a stainless steel cheesemaking pot. This sat on the “warming center” burner of my stove, which kept it as close to 77° as possible.

This particular cheese had to drain for about two days at room temperature. (Now you see why you need counter space to make cheese; cheese needs real estate before it’s ready to ripen.) It never got quite as firm as I expected to — it stayed sort of crumbly throughout. I managed to fit it all in one ripening container, where it joined the brie. But although it started second, it was finished ripening first. I served it up on that cheese platter and it seemed to go over well enough.

Would I make it again? Not until I try store-bought chaource to see how close I came. If I blew it, I’ll likely take a pass — unless the “real thing” is so good that it’s worth another try.

Fromage Frais

Just to mix things up a bit, I bought another gallon of milk and whipped up a batch of fromage frais. This is a fresh cheese a lot like cream cheese. Like all fresh cheeses, it was extremely easy to make and yielded quite a bit of cheese.

Greek Yogurt Strainer
A fine mesh strainer like this is a must-have when making greek yogurt or fresh cheese. I got this one on Amazon.

For fresh cheeses, you basically heat the milk and then add the cultures. Then you add the rennet to get curds. But instead of using a mold, you let the whey drain out in a cheese bag. I used my greek yogurt strainer. You then put it in a bowl, add a bit of salt, stir it up good, and refrigerate it.

The note on the recipe in the book said “This fresh, creamy cheese is so delicious, you’ll want to eat it on everything.” And they were right. I used it like cream cheese and like sour cream. I ate it on date nut bread and on butternut squash ravioli. I basically added it to anything I might add cream cheese or sour cream to. But after a while, even I’d had enough. If I do this one again — which I likely will — I’ll do a smaller batch.

More in the Future

As I mentioned earlier, I’m planning to make a few more bries before I leave; with luck, they’ll be ready to take with me on the road this winter. I might try a cheddar, too — it really depends on difficulty and whether I can leave it behind to age while I’m gone.

I do enjoy making cheese, but I won’t lie: it’s a lot of work. The only reward at this point — I’m definitely still a novice and not an “artisan” — is that feel-good feeling I get when I do something myself. Do I see myself making all my cheeses in the future? Hell, no. But I’m having fun with it now.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll come up with some sort of specialty cheese that only I make. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Slow-Cooker German Pork with Sauerkraut, Onions, and Apples

A twist on a family recipe…kind of.

My grandfather was German — born in Germany — and trained as a pastry chef. He owned a bakery in New Jersey and ran it with my grandmother until I was about 10 years old, when they retired to a life of leisure in their New Jersey home.

He was also an excellent cook who whipped up the real German dishes I grew up with. One of them was pork with sauerkraut. Years after my grandparents were gone, I got the recipe and whipped up a batch at home, which, if I recall, called for boneless country-style pork ribs. I’ve since lost the recipe and pretty much forgot all about it.

Until my friend Shirley shared a similar recipe on Facebook. That got me thinking about it. She linked to another recipe even more similar to the one I remembered. I decided to make it. I bought the pork. And then I got busy with other things (as usual) and forgot about making it (as usual). Fortunately, I’d put the pork in the freezer and when I was poking around in there thinking about what to make this weekend, I found it and remembered the recipe.

Pork w/Sauerkraut
Here’s a closeup of my version of the finished dish. (Do you really need to see more than one picture?)

Of course, by then I’d lost Shirley’s recipes. Rather than trying to find it on Facebook, I did a Google search, came up with a few recipes that were similar, and zoomed in on one of them. But since that wasn’t really what I wanted to make — I don’t remember potatoes being in the dish — I fine-tuned it to make it into something similar but different.

Following me after all that?

Anyway, here’s my version, which includes instructions specific to an Instant Pot. One of the things that sold me on Instant Pot was that it was a slow cooker, too; no need for multiple devices filling my pantry shelves.

Ingredients:

  • 1 2 to 4 pound boneless pork loin roast. This is not the same as a pork tenderloin. (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: do not waste a pork tenderloin in a slow-cooked or pressure-cooked recipe. It is naturally tender and is best grilled.) If there’s any visible fat on the roast, trim it off.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.
  • 2 strips uncooked bacon, chopped. I used buckboard bacon, since that’s what I had.
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar. I bet you could substitute maple syrup or even honey.
  • 1 14 oz. can sauerkraut. Or whatever “standard” sized can or jar you find. You don’t want the big jar. Don’t drain it!
  • 1 large onion, cut into 1/4 inch wedges. That’s the way I cut them, anyway. I used regular yellow onions, but I suppose you can use any kind of onion you want.
  • 1 large apple, cut into 1/4-1/2 inch wedges. I used a Honeycrisp, because that’s all I had in the house. Silly me. I kept one segment for the cook. Quality control, you know.
  • 2 teaspoons caraway seeds. That’s the one part of the recipe that I definitely do remember, mostly because when I was a kid I hated caraway seeds and my baker grandfather would make me rye bread without it. (Talk about a spoiled kid.)

You know, if you’re really big on starches with your food, you could add potatoes. The original recipe called for 6 white ones, peeled and quartered.

Instructions:

  1. Season the pork with salt and pepper and set aside.
  2. Press Sauté on the Instant Pot and toss in the bacon. Cook it up to release its yummy aroma and fat. (Okay, so if you don’t have an instant pot, you’ll need to do this in a pot on stove.)
  3. Note about browning the meat:
    The recipe I based this (loosely) on instructed cooks to simply put the raw pork into the pot with the other ingredients and cook it. But my understanding is that browning meats helps increase flavor so that’s why I did it here — and nearly always do it in any slow cooker or pressure cooker recipe. I added the bacon merely as a source of tasty fat; you could, I suppose skip the bacon and use some sort of oil instead.

    Add the pork and brown on all sides. This could take a while. Be patient. Try to stir around the bacon so it doesn’t get all burned.

  4. Remove the pork and set it aside again.
  5. Deglaze the pan with about 2 cups of hot water. This means adding the hot water and using a wooden or silicone spoon to rub away the burned bits at the bottom of the pan. Along the way, the water will turn into bacon soup. (At this point, if you’re not using an Instant Pot, you might want to transfer everything in the pot to your slow cooker which you should then turn on high. And remember later, when you’re washing two pots, that Instant Pot users only washed one. Just saying.)
  6. Add the brown sugar and stir it in.
  7. Return the pork to the pan.
  8. If you’re including potatoes, I recommend putting them in the slow cooker around the pork right now.
  9. Add the sauerkraut (with all juices), onions, and apple. Just dump them in right on top of the roast.
  10. Sprinkle the caraway seeds on top.
  11. Cover and bring the mixture to a boil, then press Off. Then press Slow Cooker and adjust the temperature to Low and the Time to 6 hours. (If you’re using a regular slow cooker, you’ll probably need to cover it to get it up to temperature. Once it’s bubbling, turn the temperature down to low.)
  12. Slow cook 6 hours.
  13. Remove the meat from the pot, slice it as thin as you can (against the grain; good luck), and arrange it on a serving plate. Using a slotted spoon, scoop out the rest of the goodies and arrange them around the pork. You can put some of the juices in a milk pitcher or gravy boat for guests who might want to pour it over on their plates.
  14. Serve hot (duh), possibly with some crusty bread. Or rye bread, with or without seeds.

If you try this, please do let me know what you think.



Pressure Cooker Beef (or Oxtail) Barley Soup

One of my favorites, made quickly with a twist.

Oxtails
Oxtails, fresh from the butcher.

One of my favorite “comfort foods” is beef barley soup. I blogged my recipe last December; here’s the pressure cooker version that’ll get yummy barley goodness to your mouth quicker. But rather than use plain old stew meat, this time I used fresh oxtails that I picked up from a local butcher this past week. I whipped it up in my Instant Pot in about an hour.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil. The original recipe called for cooking spray. But why not use a little olive oil instead?
  • 2 pounds oxtails, trimmed (or 1 to 1-1/2 pounds stew meat, trimmed and cut into 1/2- to 1-inch pieces). You can make it with less meat, but if you have more, use it. It’ll make a heartier soup.
  • 3-4 large carrots, sliced. Carrots are a must-have in any meat-based soup.
  • 2-3 stalks of celery, sliced. I don’t care for celery, but it is part of the aromatic trilogy.
  • 1 large onion, chopped. The third member of the aromatic trilogy, I put onions in most soups and stews. I still have onions from my garden.
  • 1 large parsnip, sliced. If you can’t find parsnips, add another carrot or two, which is what I did today.
  • 1 medium turnip, cut into 1/2-inch cubes. I skipped this today.
  • 4 cups fat-free, low-sodium beef broth. Today I cheated and used water with bullion, which is the only thing I had.
  • 1 bay leaf.
  • 2/3 cup uncooked pearl barley.
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt. You can probably omit the salt if you don’t use low-sodium beef broth. I did, but then again, I’m trying to keep my salt intake down. Remember you can always add salt; you can’t remove it.
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Pepper is always good with beef.

Instructions:

These instructions are for an Instant Pot, but I tried to include generic pressure cooker instructions, too.

  1. Heat the pressure cooker for browning. On an Instant Pot, press Sauté.

  2. Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat.
  3. Add oxtail or stew meat to pot and cook until browned on all sides.
  4. Remove meat from pot with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  5. Add vegetables to the pot; cook 6-8 minutes or until liquid almost evaporates.
  6. Return beef to pot with beef broth and bay leaf.
  7. Bring to a simmer and turn off the pressure cooker.
  8. Stir in remaining ingredients
  9. Cover and lock down the cover. Set the pressure cooker to high for 20 minutes. (On an Instant Pot, press Manual and set to 20.
  10. When pressure cycle is over turn pressure cooker off and allow pressure to release naturally. This should take about 15 to 20 minutes.
  11. Remove cover carefully, fish out bay leaf, and serve.

Oxtail Barley Soup
Oxtail barley soup. It was delicious!

Keep in mind that the longer you cook the pearl barley or let it sit in the hot soup, the more liquid it will absorb. The net result could be more of a stew than a soup. If you want a soupier soup, either reduce the amount of barley or increase the amount of broth.

This yields about six to eight servings, depending on serving size. I think it would be excellent with some crusty bread on a cold winter day.

Exploring Sous Vide Cooking

As if I needed another new thing to explore.

Instant Pot Sous Vide Immersion Circulator
The Instant Pot Accu SV800 Sous Vide Immersion Circulator attaches to the lip of any suitably sized pot.

This week, I bought a sous vide immersion circulator. This is a device that you put in a pot of water and let it heat the water to the exact temperature you need for sous vide cooking. The one I got is from the Instant Pot people — the Instant Pot Accu SV800 Sous Vide Immersion Circulator — so it’s designed to go into that pot, but it’ll fit just about any large pot. I suspect I could even use it with one of my big, stainless steel cheesemaking pots if I needed to prepare a large quantity of food. I bought this with a “Lightning Deal” on Amazon for under $100; it basically gives me a sous vide cooker for a fraction of the price (and size) of a dedicated sous vide cooking device.

Sous vide — in case you’re not aware of the term — is a method of cooking raw food inside a vacuum sealed bag. Add the food and seasonings, seal up the bag, and then simmer it at a specific temperature for a few hours. Yes, hours. For certain foods — like steak — you’d then finish it off by searing it in a hot skillet or on a grill. You can learn more in an excellent article I found online at the Serious Eats website.

Although many people use zip-lock bags for this kind of cooking, a vacuum sealer with heat tolerant bags is preferred. I already have one of those so I’m all ready to go. I’m thinking I might try a steak tonight. (I have to admit that I’m already pretty good at grilling up steaks so this would have to greatly improve the flavor or texture of the meat for me to switch for steak.) If all goes well, I’ll explore other recipes. Anyone have any recipes for sous vide that they want to share?

I’m also wondering if I can prepare the food with seasonings in a bag, freeze it, and then defrost and cook it later.

But the real reason I bought it? I was thinking that I could somehow use this device to help me maintain certain temperatures needed when making cheese. A quick look at it, however, gives me the idea that submerging it directly in milk would probably not be a good idea. I’d have to stick to a double-boiler, which is okay; I could use the immersion circulator in the outer pot. Any thoughts?

If anyone reading this has experience with sous vide cooking and has a favorite recipe or two, please share it. I’m always interested in trying new things.

And sometimes I’m not sure that’s a good thing!

Easy Pizza Dough

You can make your own pizza at home.

Pizza
Homemade pizza with morel mushrooms, leeks, minced garlic, cheese, and an egg.

Last week, after a successful morel mushroom hunt, I went in search of recipes for morel mushrooms. Along the way, I found a recipe on Saveur’s website for Pizza with Ramps, Morels, and Eggs. I made the pizza on Thursday, substituting leeks and minced garlic for the ramps, which were not available locally. (Note to self: plant garlic this autumn.) It was delicious. But the thing that impressed me most was how easy it was to make that pizza dough.

A few people who saw my photo of the pizza on Facebook asked whether I’d made the crust from scratch. I did. Here’s my version of just the pizza dough recipe. I found some problems with Saveur’s recipe as published and have made changes accordingly here.

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup water, heated to 115°F. I heat the water in the microwave, although I suspect my tap water would come out hot enough. Use a thermometer to check it. Too cold and the yeast won’t activate. Too hot and the yeast could die.
  • 1 packet (or 2-1/4 tsps) active dry yeast. I buy yeast in a jar so I measure it out.
  • 1/2 tsp sugar. Sugar feeds the yeast. Do not omit it.
  • 1-3/4 to 2 cups flour. The recipe called for 1-3/4 cups, but I needed more to make a dough that could be handled. You’ll also need some for dusting a work surface.
  • 1/2 tsp salt.
  • Olive oil.

Instructions:

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine water, yeast, and sugar. Let sit until foamy, approximately 10 minutes.
  2. Add 1-3/4 cup flour and salt and mix on medium speed until dough forms. Add additional flour if necessary to stiffen up the dough until it’s still very soft but workable. I added at least 2 tablespoons more.
  3. Increase speed to medium-high and knead for about 5 minutes.
  4. Use olive oil to lightly coat a clean bowl. Transfer dough to oiled bowl and turn to coat dough with oil. (The Saveur recipe skipped this step; as a result, the dough stuck to the plastic wrap. If you prefer, you can skip the oil and dust the dough with flour to prevent sticking.)
  5. Cover dough with plastic wrap and set in a warm place to rise for 30 minutes. My oven has a “Proof” function so I used it.
  6. While you’re waiting for the dough, prepare the topping(s) for your pizza.
  7. Remove the dough from the bowl and move it to a lightly floured workspace. (This is one of the reasons I love having granite countertops.)
  8. Split the dough into the number of pizzas you want. This recipe should make 2 8-inch pizzas, but there’s no reason why you can’t divide it into 3 or even 4 or leave it as one large pizza.
  9. Work each piece of dough into a flattened shape about 3/4 inches thick. While the original recipe uses the word “roll” and I used a rolling pin for the first of two pizzas, I used my hands for the second one.
  10. Place the dough on a piece of parchment paper on a flat pan.
  11. If desired, brush each pizza with olive oil. Then top with desired toppings.
  12. Bake at 450°F for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown.

One of my favorite pizza toppings is eggplant sautéed with garlic and olive oil and then topped with goat cheese crumbles. Morels and leeks with garlic and butter (from the Saveur recipe linked above) wasn’t bad either.

The best thing about this recipe: it’s quick. You can go from a pile of ingredients to finished pizzas in less than an hour. And it tastes good, too.

May Morel Mushrooms

I find and bag my first morel mushrooms.

Science Friday, an NPR radio show (also available as a podcast), did a show last Friday about mushroom hunting. It got me interested in mushrooms all over again.

Last October, I attended a weekend-long seminar at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center about mushrooms. We learned about mushrooms, hunted for mushrooms, identified mushrooms, and ate mushrooms. It was a fun weekend.

About a week later, I went mushroom hunting in the Leavenworth area with one of the other seminar attendees. We didn’t do too well, but didn’t come back empty handed, either: two chanterelles, some oyster mushrooms, and something else I can’t remember. I took home the chanterelles; my companion took the rest. I returned to the area several times since then but haven’t had any success.

I’d pretty much given up on doing any serious mushroom hunting.

And then Science Friday did their story, “Mushrooms: On the Hunt for Edibles.” And I started thinking about foraging for mushrooms all over again. After all, it was the right season for them and I knew places where the conditions might be right. So I emailed my hiking buddy Susan, who also has some mushroom foraging experience, and asked her if she was interested. Of course she was! We went out around 9 AM Monday morning.

We took the Jeep up into the mountains. That’s about as specific as I’ll get for the location. As any serious mushroom hunter will tell you, locations are never divulged. Morel mushroom hunting is serious business in Washington state; hordes of hunters cross the Cascades every weekend this time of year. Some are commercial hunters; Susan says morels are worth about $30/pound. Others are hobbyists like us who use a mushroom hunt as an excuse to get outdoors and walk around in the woods.

Although we were unable to take the Jeep as far as I’d hoped, we parked at a familiar parking area, grabbed our bags, and headed into the woods. Penny ran ahead. For the next three hours, we wandered around the underbrush on either side of trails or roads, looking for just the right environmental conditions.

Trouble was, I didn’t know the right environmental conditions. I’d never hunted for morels. The only thing I’d every heard was that they grew in areas damaged by forest fires. The Science Friday story said they grew under oak and apple trees, but we don’t have oak trees here and there aren’t any apple trees other than in orchards.

After wandering around the woods off to one side of the road, Susan climbed back down to the road. “I think there’s an easier way down over here,” she called back from up ahead.

Morel Mushrooms
From my first find. Aren’t they gorgeous?

Morel Mushrooms
Can you see all five mushrooms here? Hint: two of them are together.

Morel Mushroom
Here’s a closeup of one of the last morels I found. As you might imagine, from a distance, pinecones look similar.

I made my way through the underbrush. I was about halfway down the steep slope when I looked down and saw it: a very large morel mushroom. Within seconds, I’d seen three more.

They were beautiful — I mean, really beautiful. Perfectly shaped, popping up through the dirt looking clean and brown and exactly the way a morel should. I took photos. I marked GPS coordinates on my phone. And then I cut them and put them into my canvas bag.

Susan found the next batch not far away and packed them away in a paper bag she’d brought for the purpose.

We talked about the conditions they were growing in. Plants growing nearby. Moistness. Amount of sunlight. We found things in common between the two patches. We began getting a real idea of what to look for.

We continued wandering around, on and off the road, for the next two hours. We took turns finding mushrooms. At one point, Susan found a huge one about three inches from my foot and I spotted a smaller one nearby. At another point, I found five of them within a square foot of space. Much later, the two of us, working within 15 feet of each other, found several patches of them.

Now I don’t want you to think that the mushrooms were all over the place. Well, mushrooms were all over the place — mostly shiny brown round ones — but the morels were elusive. One of us would find a patch and then twenty minutes might go by before the other found a patch. We were out there for three hours and we each brought back maybe enough for a meal. I weighed mine when I got home: 9 ounces.

It was fun and, because we weren’t getting skunked, it never got frustrating.

It was nearly 1 PM when we called it quits. We’d only walked a little more than a mile according to my GPS tracker.

I drove us back to Susan’s place and took a quick tour of her backyard rose bushes and gardens. We talked about the mushrooms we’d found and how we each planned to double-check that we’d found morels and not false morels, which were not recommended for consumption. Then I headed home.

Later, I laid out the mushrooms I’d brought home to take a photo. I also weighted them on my postal scale: 9 ounces even. Good thing we weren’t hunting mushrooms for a living.

Morel Mushrooms
Not bad for a first time out, eh?

Dinner tonight or tomorrow: Pizza with Ramps, Morels, and Eggs. I might also try one of the recipes I found for fried morels.

And since mushrooms grow so quickly, there’s a pretty good chance there will be more to pick later this week in the same places we found them today. I’m game for another outing on Friday. I hope Susan is, too.