Growing food has been on my mind: I’ve been busy prepping for a sprout-growing workshop this week and organizing next month’s Free the Seeds event. You too are probably noticing the steady march toward spring as bright seed catalogs arrive regularly and storage vegetables beg to be front and center in your meals. Now’s the time to take stock of what you’ve saved from your last growing season, particularly what you’ve used and what’s left.
Read more about taking stock of stored food
Have you ever decided to try a recipe for the first time for a party? That was our first attempt at Sourdough Pretzel Bites. Several years back, George and I volunteered to prepare a fondue-themed surprise party for a dear friend. We bought about 10 kinds of cheese and made several sweet and savory fondues: classic Emmenthaler, cheddar and beer, Gruyere and wine, gjetost, Brie and shiitake, squash and cheddar, Spanish Manchego, bagna cauda, and of course chocolate. I guess that 30, maybe 40, people passed through the house that night, poking various dippers into every fondue pot we could get our hands on.
Our first sourdough soft pretzel attempt disappeared quickly that night, but in the years since I’ve tweaked and perfected the recipe. The dough is straightforward; where opinions vary widely is in how to achieve a crisp “shell” and soft center. German soft pretzels have long been dipped in lye, an alkaline substance so caustic that it’s used to clean clogged drains and requires gloves when handling. As much as I love traditional flavors and techniques, I wasn’t ready to introduce that element into my kitchen.
The eminent Harold McGee has recommended sodium carbonate, sometimes called soda ash, as a replacement: simply bake sodium bicarbonate, also known as the common kitchen staple baking soda, at a low temperature until most of its water and carbon dioxide evaporate. On the upside, your pretzels will have that traditional bite; on the downside, this “baked soda” will still irritate your skin. So I prefer standard baking soda in my soda water bath. It may be less traditional and less flavorful, but it balances well with the sourdough tang and doesn’t eat into my hands.
Learn to make Sourdough Pretzel Bites and Beer–Cheese Dip
I see all types of bread as an easy snack, but focaccia stands out among them. I’d buy it oven-hot as a street snack in Italy, and that flavor has stuck with me decades later. It’s tempting to think of focaccia as a deep-crust pizza crust or sandwich bread and load up on toppings and fillings, but it really rises best in the oven when it isn’t overloaded and shows off its heavy glug of olive oil when other flavors don’t take over.
Although sourdough isn’t traditional for focaccia, the tang pairs beautifully with silky olive oil. It also makes the dough forgiving of busy schedules; instead of having to watch to ensure it doesn’t overproof, you can slide the pan into the refrigerator and bake it at your leisure. But one of the greatest perks of sourdough focaccia is that unlike many sourdough breads, you can cut it and eat it hot. This also means it doesn’t keep as well, so I make a small loaf in a single 9- by 13-inch pan and bake often. Besides snack food, the hot bread works well with a bowl of Tomato Juice Soup or on an appetizer plate with pickles, homemade cheese, and sliced fruit.
Learn to make Savory Sourdough Focaccia and Sweet Sourdough Focaccia
Every year, when nights start to crackle with cold and I’m cozying up to the woodstove, my alcohol tastes shift. Instead of a gin and tonic, I order an old-fashioned. We buy more bottles of whiskey and fewer bottles of tequila. And I even find space for the occasional rich milk-and-egg drinks like eggnog and its warm cousin, tom and jerry.
I’ve made many variations on eggnog over the years before settling on a quick recipe that makes a pair of drinks at a time, perfect for an evening in. You’ll note it uses raw egg. I always recommend fresh eggs from a well-kept flock, but I became even more confident in the recipe when I learned that a scientist at Rockefeller University found bacteria can’t stand up to a mixture of raw eggs and 20 percent alcohol.
Learn to make Homemade Eggnog and Homemade Tom & Jerry