Thursday, May 27, 2010

Vermont Shepherd

As a preface, I would like to say that though it may appear this way, today is not a continuation of last post’s pity party. Really, it’s not. Appearances can be deceiving. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that? It’s true, you know.

The pity here has packed up and moved out and restlessness has taken its place, suitcase and all. (The amp-carrying gig is still in the application process, which is to say somewhere distant and in the unforeseeable future.) It is a restless party around here these days. Restless parties, in case you’d like to know, involve a type of visceral wanderlust, and tend to happen on the tail end of excessive bread-baking. They involve relatively unplanned road trips to Vermont. And cheese, they involve cheese, precisely half way between your house and your destination of Burlington.

I’ve found that reliably, cheese makes everything better. Especially when it’s Vermont Shepherd cheese. And when you pass their farm at exactly lunchtime and the people there have a batch of fresh ricotta going as you awkwardly let yourself into their cheese house, well, it just gets better than better.

The farm was exactly what you’d expect from rural Vermont: skinny dirt roads, sweeping pastures and stonewalls, more sheep than people visible to the passerby. It was the kind of place, hospitable and with a familiar smell, that made you feel as though you were visiting an old family friend: your mother’s aunt perhaps, someone you had never met yourself but felt a vague connection to.

The farm is in Putney. Which, if you think about it, sounds happy and docile and sheep-like all on its own. If you’re in the neighborhood (or if you, like me, are restless and are in need of a road trip), I highly suggest you go.

If you’re lucky, you’ll run into David Major and Joe Sawyer, and they’ll be making a fresh batch of ricotta. If your luck continues further, they’ll give you directions to the Cave. You’ll then drive there, a place that resembles a dwelling straight out of Tolkien: there is red door built right into the middle of a stonewall exterior. There you’ll meet Tanya, brining and flipping the cheeses as she does twice a week, and she’ll tell you which cheese is good for picnics and with what beer.

Completely convinced and won over by these people and their farm, you’ll buy cheese. You’ll go back to the cheese house to check on the progress of the ricotta, and David Major will scoop some, finished only minutes before you got there, right into a container for you to take home. Your mouth will water. Eaten with bread and apples and your fingers as utensils, the ricotta will make at once the most sophisticated and the most humble road trip snack you’ve ever had.

My friend Katherin and I left Vermont Shepherd with our hands full of cheese, our cameras full of pictures, and with a new favorite place in Putney, Vermont. It’s the kind of town, the kind of farm, where people still trust each other enough to ask that you pay for your cheese before you go, but in a bucket on a shelf in an unlocked shed. More importantly though, the cheese is just that good. Make the trip.

A hearty thank you to all of the people at Vermont Shepherd, who kept themselves composed even when they saw two girls, in a car with Connecticut plates, poking around their farm. You made our intrusion feel welcome.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Challah and catching up

Oh, dear. We have some catching up to do.

First, and foremost: I am a college graduate. What? Yes. Sometimes I have to remind myself of this. This, and the fact that I have time, that in the grand scheme of things, as they say, I still have a lot of learning (and cooking, and baking) ahead of me. Plus, I read a Times article about a man reflecting on how beneficial taking time off after college was, about how he spent time post graduation following Pink Floyd around. So there is always that, too. I can carry amps.

Second: In the midst of finals week, my computer, bless its little hard drive, decided that it had taken just about as much as it could take. Come to think of it, we were feeling pretty much the same in those days, my computer and I. Only it, being technology and decidedly inhuman (no matter how much I do depend on it), had the easy out of crashing.

Third: We all made it out alive. Me, my computer and I safely got through the end of the school year and started a new summer. And I learned (here’s where you come in) that in the event of pity parties, it seems imperative to invite bread. Seeduction and challah, to be specific, best if baked in quick secession. Turns out a good dose of yeast, eggs, and getting elbow deep in flour can get you through just about anything. Who knew?

Unimaginably, campfires and wine were not doing the trick. Mojitos, even in their botched form (which we came to call mojito-inspired cocktails aka drinks with a semblance of mint) weren’t doing it. Wielding around the kitchen, though, tearing through bags of flour faster than sanity should allow, turned out to be the secret.

For the hour that this bakes your kitchen will smell like a bakery. It will be comforting. You’ll forget about looming career decisions, and transitional periods, and the fallback occupation of being an amp-carrying groupie. And the only decision you’ll have to make is whether to use butter or jam on the piece that you'll tear off, still warm, right out of the oven. It’s fantastically therapeutic, I promise you.

I realize I’m choosing now, when June is fast approaching and the weather is finally turning, to tell you to turn on your oven. So it goes. You’ll be happy you did.

Challah (Egg Bread)

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Note: I’m going to be honest here. I couldn’t figure out the braiding for the life of me. At the end of the day, I ended up winging it: folding here, criss-crossing there, arranging it so it at least slightly resembled a braid. Then I made them into round loaves, which are much more forgiving. I’m going to provide you with the directions I was given, and maybe you’re less braid-challenged than I am, but at the very least, don’t be intimidated. Mine turned out just fine. Also, any of the risings can be done in the fridge (I slowed mine down and left it in overnight); just make sure you bring the dough back to room temperature before you work with it again.

1 ½ tablespoons active dry yeast
1 tablespoon plus ½ cup sugar
½ cup olive or vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the bowl
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon salt
8 cups all-purpose flour
Poppy or sesame seeds for sprinkling.

In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and 1 tablespoon sugar in 1 3/4 cups lukewarm water. Whisk oil into yeast, then beat in 4 eggs, one at a time, with remaining sugar and salt. Gradually add flour. When dough holds together, it is ready for kneading. (I used a mixer for this step, and it had to work pretty hard, but I was able to do it.)

Turn dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth, about ten or so turns. Clean out bowl and grease it, then return dough to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour. Punch down dough, cover and let rise again in a warm place for another half-hour. (After this, I stuck mine in the fridge and returned to it the next morning.)

To make a 6-braid challah, either straight or circular, take half the dough and form it into 6 balls. With your hands, roll each ball into a strand about 12 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide. Place the 6 in a row, parallel to one another. Pinch the tops of the strands together. Move the outside right strand over 2 strands. Then take the second strand from the left and move it to the far right. Take the outside left strand and move it over 2. Move second strand from the right over to the far left. Start over with the outside right strand. Continue this until all strands are braided. For a straight loaf, tuck ends underneath. For a circular loaf, twist into a circle, pinching ends together. Make a second loaf the same way. Place braided loaves on a greased cookie sheet.

Beat remaining egg and brush it on loaves. Let rise another hour. Preheat oven to 375 and brush loaves again. Sprinkle bread with seeds, if using. Bake in middle of oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until golden. Cool loaves on rack.