Friday, March 25, 2016

Finishing The Office (minus Season 8)

In summer 2006, I was working for SCI-FI Science Camps. I had a coworker named Brahm who I got along with really well. One week that summer we were both running camps in Prince Albert, with four other co-workers, all of whom had family or friend connections in Prince Albert. This meant Brahm and I ended up hanging out by ourselves a few times. One evening we were flipping through the channels on the TV in the Super 8 hotel room I was sharing with a coworker who was out partying with her Prince Albert friends and came across a show I'd seen a couple of times called The Office. We watched a couple Season 1 episodes and were completely hooked.  The next week when we got back to Saskatoon, Brahm downloaded all of Season 1 and 2 and binged everything. A couple weeks later we started officially dating, and from Season 3-7 watched every new episode together.

We both stopped watching around the time that Steve Carell left the show.  Brahm pretty much stopped after the Goodbye Michael episode, and I gave up a few episodes into Season 8. I did tune into the finale a few years ago but didn't have much interest in finishing the entire series.

When The Office arrived on Canadian Netflix a few months ago I decided to watch through again, and this time I hoped to finish the full series. I'd heard a few people say that the show was still decent after Michael Scott's departure so I thought I would give it a shot.  When I got to the end of Season 7, the few episodes left that season without Carell were still pretty good. The cast could hold their own. Why did I stop watching? I wondered.

Then I got to season 8 and Robert California.  If you haven't watched the show or like many, stopped after season 7, Robert California, played by James Spader, was probably the most shark-jumpy character I've ever seen on a TV show.  He made the show painful to watch and 4 episodes into season 8 I quit again.

However, still determined not to completely give up, I read the season 8 spoilers and saw that Spader only stayed on as a cast member for that season.  I watched the finale of 8 and started over with season 9.

Other than a few major points of annoyance/weirdness (e.g. why did they turn Andy into such a horrible character, after building him up to be someone you rooted for by season 7), season 9 was overall pretty solid. I liked the Jim and Pam storyline, I liked that the documentary actually became a plot point, I liked the continuity of bringing back some old randoms (like Dwight's friend Rolf), I even liked the new characters. I know many on the internet don't agree with this but I enjoyed the season. I laughed a lot and also cried a lot in the last few episodes of the series. There is no denying that Michael Scott was pretty integral to the show, it wasn't half-bad without him (as long as it was also without Robert California).

If you, like me, were once a big fan of The Office but gave up after season 7, I encourage you to give season 9 a shot if you're looking for something to watch on Netflix. I was not disappointed for the most part and I hope you will agree.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Soft, Light Sourdough Yeasted Loaf!

A while ago I mentioned finally figuring out a perfect sourdough recipe. To me this meant plenty of sourdough flavour, less than half white flour, but still soft, light, and sandwich-worthy.  It took many, many attempts to get something that worked but finally the experimentation paid off and I can consistently make a pretty brag-worthy loaf.  And I knead it in a bread-maker, so the hands-on time is pretty minimal overall (though you do need to be home for at least a half-day to tend to it between risings).

I find it works well even if my sourdough starter has been neglected for a few weeks (though definitely does rise faster if it's been fed recently).  I start by mixing 90g of (50/50) starter with 100g whole wheat flour, 50g white flour, 50g rye flour, and 200g water to essentially make a large bowl of 50/50 starter.  I let it sit at room temperature for at least 12 hours, 24 is better.  After that it will be bubbly and ready to make the dough.

The dough is simple, but has a few extra ingredients beyond typical water/flour/salt/yeast, to increase the lightness of what could become a heavy loaf.  To the starter I add 150g of white flour, 100g wheat flour, 10g vital wheat gluten (to improve the structure since I am using so much wheat flour), 10g salt, 10g cocoa (sometimes, to add some flavour and make a nice brown colour), a scoop or two of extra grains if I feel like it (I'll often add flax or chia), about 1.5 tsp yeast, and 100g milk.

Toss that into the breadmaker, let it knead, and unplug.  Depending on the starter activity and type of yeast used (instant makes for a faster rise), it will need to rise from 2-4 hours to double in bulk.

Then it goes into a loaf pan for the second rise, which usually takes 1-2 hours.  I had, and still get, many ripped loaves due to under-proofing so it's important to let it rise well above the edge of the pan before putting it in the oven.

Then it goes into the oven, 375F for 35 minutes.  Out comes a perfect loaf of bread, made more perfect if it is left to cool out in the open overnight to develop an extra-crisp crust. It stays fresh for 3-4 days before starting to get a bit stale, at which time I slice the remaining loaf and freeze it.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Macaron Revival

If you are a long time reader, you might remember a couple of posts from back in the day when I decided I needed to learn to make macarons. You will remember that I had some mild success after 8-10 batches.  The last successful batch I made was a nearly perfect batch of peanut macarons - I was able to get good shape, good feet, and they didn't brown, but they were still fairly hollow inside.  After I got that "almost perfect" batch, I pretty much stopped making them forever because they were so difficult. I also never wrote down the recipe I used (it was in a notebook that I am pretty sure is lost now) so over the past couple years I tried a couple times to recreate it, to pretty much always abysmal failure.

Then, about a month ago Brahm and I got hooked on The Great British Bake Off, a lovely baking competition show featuring a bunch of polite British home bakers attempting the most amazing feats of bakery. We started watching at the recommendation of a friend and after just a few episodes, both of us, like the entire United Kingdom apparently, were suddenly inspired to up our baking game.  While Brahm has focussed on tarts so far, I was intrigued by the use of Italian meringue in so many items and finally worked up the nerve to try this method for macarons, which serious food bloggers all swear is the superior method. I'd learned about it through Annie's Eats but having always wanted to try making chocolate macarons, I first attempted this recipe (including Italian meringue for the first time). I had approximately half success - half of the macarons cracked, I know they were slightly overmixed, and half were a little misshapen but pretty good for a first attempt:

Having gained confidence I attempted the Annie's Eats recipe linked above, to complete failure.  Every single macaron cracked and they seemed to be overbaked as well.  I did not take photos of that batch. They were obviously undermixed (likely all the meringue was not combined with the almond paste properly) and who knows what else.

I did a bit of reading and figured I might be making my meringue too thin, so I tracked down this recipe and followed it almost exactly, other than adding a bit of cream of tartar to stabilize the egg whites better, and also added a couple grams of corn starch so the shells would dry out faster.  I sifted all the dry ingredients and took greater care to get my meringue stiffer and...

Not perfect but much improved!  Three days of practicing piping these and a better textured batter helped get them uniformly shaped. I think the lopsided ones are due to using my oven in convection mode (will not do that again) and I think the batter was just slightly undermixed, but at least distributed evenly.  For sure the best looking batch I have made, and they also seemed to be the least hollow!

I'm definitely confident using this method and making Italian meringue and I don't plan on ever attempting the French method again because why??  And bonus, to make one batch of these (half the Love and Macarons recipe) took only about 20 minutes to prep, 15 minutes to rest, and 13 minutes to bake.  They were out of the oven and filled, and the kitchen cleaned, in under an hour.

While I am 1/4 English (I'm actually a Mayflower descendant), I've never felt particularly in tune with that part of my ancestry. Watching The Great British Bake Off, I can see how it's not just a baking competition but also quite patriotic for Brits.  I do have several quintessentially "British" hobbies but have never thought about them that way before, and cheesy as it sounds now I do feel a little more in touch with my British heritage.