Sourdough Starter-Risen No-Knead Bread

I can never decide which look I like better... Pizza stone version on the left, Covered pot version on the right

Bread That Takes Time, but Not Your Time

A recent e-mail reminded me that I promised ages ago to share my sourdough version of the Sullivan St. “no knead” bread popularized by Mark Bittman in the NYTimes. Part of the reason I didn’t get around to it sooner is because it’s basically the same as the recipe I posted for crusty, shaped loaves—although that one uses just enough flour to make the dough kneadable. But the no-knead method probably deserves its own post.

Over time, I’ve developed three basic formulas to work with my sourdough starter: slow, medium, and fast. All three, even the “fast” version, work by letting time do the work that kneading normally does. A longer-than-normal rise enables long chains of gluten to form, and gluten is what forms stretchy membranes that trap the gas produced by the yeast, which is what causes bread to rise. The lack of kneading also means the dough can be wetter, because you don’t have to worry about it sticking to you. When that wet dough is baked it in a covered pot, it creates a steamy environment not unlike a professional steam-blasting oven, and that’s what produces the thick, crispy crust people associate with European-style or artisanal bakery bread. However, I’ve also had pretty good success with a baking stone and a splash of water thrown in a preheated dish on the oven floor (which often gets on the oven floor too, but that’s fine—more water in contact with more hot surface at one time = more steam).

The loaves above show the differences between the two methods—the covered pot method rises a little more and has a slightly nicer crust. Using a pizza stone enables you to make different shapes and slash the top in decorative ways. They were baked at the same time like so:

I put a loaf in the pot first, and then slid the rack back into the oven and just slid the second loaf onto the stone on a sheet of parchmentI removed the lid 25 minutes into the baking time, and the internal temp of the pizza stone was 195 F and the dutch oven loaf was 185F. I left the pizza stone loaf in for another 5 minutes, and the dutch oven loaf in for 10, after which they were both around 197-199F.    I couldn’t fit the pizza stone & pot side by side on the rack,
so I used the lid of the small dish to level the pot

The “fast” version takes a minimum of 6 hrs for the first rise. The “slow” version, which is the most similar to the original “no knead” recipe, takes at least 18 hrs for the first rise. However, those are 6-18 (or more) hours during which you don’t have to do a thing. Much like the no-knead pizza dough, this recipe virtually effortless. Five minutes to measure out the ingredients and stir them together, another minute or so to shape it, 30 seconds to throw it in the oven and another 30 seconds to add a splash of water at the beginning or remove the lid of the pot mid-way through baking. Even if it takes another few minutes to refresh the starter, the whole process probably takes less active time than making a trip to a bakery where you could buy something comparable.

And, of course, as with anything you make yourself, you can customize it however you want. Here are a few versions:

This probably had about 1/4 cup whole wheat flour, but no other additions. As you can see, that produces a much taller loaf. The Classic

About 1/4 cup each dried cranberries, dried apricots, and walnut pieces + 4 T. honey. Really nice with sweetened cream cheese. Cranberry, Apricot & Walnut

2 T. tomato paste, 2 t. garlic powder, 2 t. each dried oregano and parsley, and 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese. I didn't use the stone or water with these because I didn't want them to be so crustyGarlic, Tomato, & Herb Knots

I go through phases with slashing patterns--I've been on a seashell kick, but a simple X in the middle or # pattern works too. Multigrain, Flax, & Honey

Choosing Slow, Medium, or Fast

The long rise means it takes a little advance planning—if your starter takes at least 8 hrs to “refresh” (which most do) that means you have to start the process at least 16 hours in advance. So, for example, if you want fresh bread for dinner, you’ll probably want to refresh the starter before going to bed the previous night and make the “fast” version sometime before noon the next day. It’ll be ready to shape and bake that evening. If you want the bread to be done by 7, the dough should be made by 9am. If you want the bread to be fresh and warm for breakfast or a weekend brunch, just shift that all back a little: refresh the starter anytime in the morning or afternoon of the previous day, make the dough in the evening, and it will be ready to shape & bake when you wake up.

You can always let it rise longer than the “minimum”—in fact, the longer you let it rise, the better. So if you have to be out the door by 8am and don’t get home until after 6, you can bake it anytime that night or even the next morning, and it’ll still be great. If I don’t manage to bake it within 24 hours, I usually refrigerate it in a zip-top bag and then let it come to room temperature for 1-2 hrs before shaping and baking it.

Aside from time considerations, which version I use also depends on how much bread I want to make and how much starter I want to use. I usually try to use 2 cups of starter per week—that’s just what works with my starter feeding routine—so if I want one loaf, I make the “fast” version. If I want two loaves, I use the “medium” recipe and double it. If I want a lot of bread or only want to use a little bit of starter (say, if I’m making something else at the same time that already uses a cup or more of starter), then I make the “slow” version.

You can also use cornmeal, wheat bran, or oats to prevent the dough from sticking to the towelThe cracks form because the bread continues rising after the crust begins to harden

Can It Be Moar Sour?

Yes.

The “slow” version produces the most sourdough flavor, despite starting with the least sourdough starter. I assume that’s mostly because the yeast have more time to do their thing, but I’ve never done a “slow” and “medium” loaf side by side to see if they’d be different even if they were allowed to rise for the same amount of time. In general, I get a lot of tang if I let any of the versions rise for 18-24 hours. In warmer weather, as little as 12 hours can be enough to produce a pretty sour loaf.

Probably the best way to maximize the sourness is to let the dough rise for 18-24 hrs and then refrigerate it for 3-4 days. The yeast will keep doing their thing—digesting the starches in the flour and producing acid and alcohol, and the bread will get more and more sour. Eventually, they’ll either run out of food or produce an environment too acidic for them to live in. However, I haven’t run into any problems as long as I bake the dough within a week of making it.

Can It Be More Whatever?

Yes. Just add whatever. Prefer whole wheat? Fine. To make it 100% whole wheat, you’ll need a starter made with whole wheat flour. If you don’t care about the percentage, you can use whole wheat flour with a starter made with white flour. It will be denser than the white wheat version, but will still rise and be tasty. Prefer not to use sugar? Fine. The original doesn’t, but I find that a little sugar improves the oven spring a lot, probably by speeding up yeast activity. Two teaspoons isn’t enough to make it taste sweet—most of it probably gets eaten by the yeast and transformed into gas, acid, & alcohol—so if you want a sweet-tasting bread, add more sugar (or maple syrup or honey or malt syrup or brown rice syrup, you get the idea).

interior shot of the fruit & nut bread, which also had a high proportion of whole wheat, thus the denser crumbI almost never make the “basic” recipe. I usually use at least 1/4-1/2 cup whole wheat flour and add some oats and sunflower seeds. Other possible additions include olive oil or melted butter, honey, grated hard cheeses, diced cooked or cured meats, herbs, tomato paste, chopped sundried tomatoes, dried fruits, nuts, flax meal, fried shallots, garlic powder or paste, wheat germ, and oat bran. Probably not all at once. Diced pepperoni, olive oil, tomato paste, shredded sharp cheddar or aged gouda, fried shallots, and oregano is a killer combination—like pizza in bread form. Fresh rosemary, swiss cheese and pine nuts are pretty great together, too. It works best if you whisk semi-liquid ingredients like honey, olive oil, or tomato paste into the starter (and water, if using) before adding the dry ingredients so they get evenly distributed.

See the recipe below for suggested amounts of additions, or just improvise. I also included the recipe below for the version pictured at the top, which I made this week. Instead of white bread flour, I used a multigrain flour made by Westwind Milling Co. that contains hard winter wheat, oats, rye, spelt, and corn (available at By the Pound if you’re in the Ann Arbor area). I whisked some gluten into the flour before adding it to the starter because many of those grains have a lower gluten content than wheat. I also threw in some whole rolled oats, flax meal, sunflower seeds, and honey. I used the “medium” version of the recipe, doubled for two loaves, and let it rise for 24 hrs. The result was sour and nutty and chewy and complex and just slightly sweet. It’s denser than the classic white flour loaf, but something about cold weather makes me crave that kind of heartiness. I’ve been loving it slathered with butter and topped with sprinkle of coarse salt or dipped in runny egg yolks.

Recipe: Sourdough-risen No Knead Bread
see this post for advice about making a sourdough starter

FAST (min. rise 6 hrs)

  • after risen, the dough will be airy and have a vast network of bubbles2 c. refreshed starter (1:1 flour:water)
  • 1/4 c. water
  • 2 1/4 c. bread flour
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. sugar (optional—improves oven spring)

MEDIUM (min. rise 12 hrs)

  • 1 c. refreshed starter
  • 1 c. water
  • 3 c. bread flour
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. sugar 

SLOW (min. rise 18 hrs)

  • 1/3 c. refreshed starter
  • 1 1/2 c. water
  • 3 1/2 c. bread flour
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. sugar

for lack of a towel, I've used old pillowcases before. not recommended if you have any doubts about the colorfastness of the fabric dyeequipment: a kitchen towel (not terrycloth) and baking stone or covered pot
extras: more flour, cornmeal, wheat bran, or oats for dusting the flour
substitutions: any flour can be used in place of the bread flour—add 2 T. vital wheat gluten per cup of lower-gluten flour; you can use whey or water used to soak dried tomatoes or fruit in place of the water; you can use any kind of sweetener in place of the sugar or leave it out
additions (per loaf): 1/2 cup rolled oats, grated cheese, or dried fruit; 1/4 cup sunflower seeds, nuts, diced cured meat like pepperoni, sundried tomatoes; 2 T. olive oil or any other oil or melted solid fat, tomato paste, honey or maple syrup, fried shallots or garlic, flax seeds or flax meal, wheat germ, oat bran, or fresh herbs; 2 t. dried herbs, garlic powder, or other spices.

1. Whisk liquids & semi-liquids together (starter, water, honey or tomato paste, etc.). If adding gluten, whisk that into the dry ingredients in a separate bowl.

2. Combine all the ingredients and stir just until the flour is moistened—usually about a minute. The dough should be sticky and shaggy. If you can knead it without it sticking to you, add more water 2 T. at a time until it’s too sticky to knead. If it’s so wet it’s more like batter than dough, add flour until it can be shaped into a ball that won’t immediately flatten into a pancake. Getting the consistency right may involve some trial & error, but even too-dry or too-wet doughs will probably produce tasty bread.

it's hard to communicate texture in visual form--you can see how it sticks to the spatula. And yet it's stiff enough to pull away from the bowl a little.

3. Cover and let rise for 6-24 hrs. The dough is ready when it has more than doubled. There may be fat bubbles on top, and the dough should be full of air—see the honeycomb texture in the picture next to the ingredient list. The less fiber in the flour and the more sugar in the dough, the more it will rise.

4. Optional step I usually skip: Flour a work surface and scrape the dough out onto it. Fold it over itself once or twice. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest 15 min. I assume that’s meant to make it easier to shape. I usually just shape it in the bowl:

5. Flour your hands enough to keep the dough from sticking to you, scrape the dough out of the bowl and form it into a ball. Dust a cotton towel with flour (or cornmeal or wheat bran or rolled oats) and put the ball seam-side up in the towel. Dust with more flour, gather the ends of the towel, twist and pile on top of the loaf. Let rise for 1-2 hrs—longer is better, but 1 hr is sufficient. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look like it has risen much, it will rise more in the oven.

it's so wet there's not really a "seam," but there will probably be one side that's not as smooth; that side goes up in the towel becasue it will be inverted into the pot or onto the baking tile.

twisted up and ready for the second rise 6. 30 min before baking, preheat the oven at 450F with a covered oven-safe pot inside (like a Dutch oven or Le Creuset) including the lid OR a baking stone and a baking dish on the oven floor. I think this makes it look kind of like a sand-dollar; Brian thinks it looks kind of like a marijuana leaf. Kind of like a Rorschach test.When ready to bake, carefully turn the dough into the pot and cover OR turn onto a piece of parchment paper, slash with a sharp knife if desired, and slide onto the stone. If using the baking stone, pour 1/2 cup water ino the preheated dish on the oven floor. 

7. Bake 25-30 minutes, and then remove the lid or turn the loaf for even browning. Bake another 5-25 minutes until the crust is browned on top and the internal temperature of the loaf is between 190-200F. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can check for doneness by tapping the bottom of the loaf. When it’s done, it will sound hollow.

Recipe: Multigrain Bread with Sunflower Seeds, Flax Meal, and Honey
(2 loaves)

  • 2 cups refreshed starter (1:1 flour:water)
  • 2 cups water
  • 5 3/4 cups multigrain flour (like the Westwind Milling Multigrain Bread Flour, which contains hard winter wheat, oats, rye, spelt, and corn)
  • 1/4 cup vital wheat gluten
  • 1/4 c. flax meal
  • 1 cup oats
  • 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
  • 2 T. honey
  • 1 T. kosher salt

Follow the same method outlined above. Divide in half and rise in two separate bowls if your mixing bowl isn’t large enough to hold the dough once it’s more than doubled.

Before rising8 hrs probably would have been enough; I let it go 24.

Spicy Ginger Peanut Stew and a Soup Swap: Take That, Michigan Winter!

Actually, that's sunflower butter b/c I ran out of peanut butter. Same idea, though. Incidentally vegan (which is not incidentally my favorite kind of vegan)

Soup Season is ON

I think the worst thing about January in Michigan is knowing even after we survive it, we still have to deal with February. Would you like some soup? I would like some soup.

I first discovered this recipe sometime during the year or two I ate (mostly) vegan. In many ways, it’s just a standard vegetable soup. It starts with garlic & onion, and then you add some vegetables—it doesn’t really matter what kind. Top with canned tomatoes and enough broth to cover, cook until the veggies are done, season with salt & pepper to taste, and that should be pretty tasty, even if you don’t add anything else. But it’s probably nothing to write home the internet about.

You can add more nut butter if you want something really peanutty. I like it better with just a little.It’s the three elements in the name that make this something worth sharing—a hefty scoop of cayenne pepper, a couple of tablespoons of minced fresh ginger, and a few heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter. Together, they transform this from just your average vegetable soup into a spicy, hearty, creamy stew. A hint of coconut, which you can get either by sweating the veggies in coconut oil, adding some coconut milk with the nut butter, or garnishing the soup with a sprinkle of unsweetened dried coconut curls adds another layer of flavor and richness, but it’s also great without the coconut.

To make it more filling, I sometimes add potatoes or rice. In this batch, I used sweet potatoes because I think they’re especially nice with ginger, cayenne, and coconut. Sometimes I throw in a bell pepper or some hearty greens. Carrots would be a welcome addition, too. I actually have a hard time thinking of anything that wouldn’t be good in this—cabbage, peas, corn, winter squash, white potatoes. And although I’ve never tried it, I imagine it would also be good with some beans, shredded cooked chicken, or diced ham if you wanted to add more protein or had leftovers hanging around that you wanted to use up. 

Apparently 2 big onions, a whole head of cauliflower, two heads of broccoli, 4 sweet potatoes, and 5 cans of diced tomatoes is kind of a lot of vegetable matter. Filled 3/4 of my biggest pot, and took over 10 cups of liquid, in addition to the tomato can juice, to cover.This is a 12-qt pot so as written below it makes ~8 quarts of soup?
Easily scaled down—the original recipe makes 4-6 servings.

Swapping Soup

I usually make a giant batch of this once a year and then freeze it in pint jars or 2-cup screw-top tupperware containers, which usually last me through the winter. However, thanks to the Michigan Lady Food Bloggers—especially Shayne of Fruitcake or Nuts who hosted the swap—this batch got magically transformed into six different kinds of soup: 

It's like a Michigan winter survival kit!

Clockwise from the top left, that’s Cheddar and Potato with Canadian Bacon (by Bee of Good Food Michigan), Curried Red Lentil Soup (by Mary of A Million Grandmas), a Potato & Sausage soup with lots of fresh dill (by Shayne of Fruitcake or Nuts), my Spicy Ginger Peanut soup, a Corn Chowder with Red and Green Bell Peppers (by Sarah of Una Buona Forchetta), and a Winter Stew with Pork, Beans, & Greens (by Yvonne of Wool and Water).

We tasted them all, along with drinks & bread provided by Shayne and mint chocolate chip cookies from Bee—all of which were delicious—and then filled the containers we’d brought with the leftovers. Kudos to whoever came up with this idea. It would be a great thing to do on a regular basis with a group of friends with similar food preferences/restrictions.

I’ll link to their recipes when/if they post them. Here’s mine:

Recipe: Ginger Peanut Stew (adapted from VegWeb)
makes enough for a crowd, halve or see VegWeb for a smaller amount

  • 4 T. coconut oil (or any neutral cooking oil)How many great recipes start just like this: mince some garlic and/or ginger, dice an onion...
  • 1 head garlic
  • a 2” piece of ginger (about 2 T. minced or grated)
  • 2 large onions
  • 1 head cauliflower*
  • 2 heads broccoli*
  • 4 sweet potatoes*
  • 5 14-oz cans of diced tomatoes, with liquid
  • 6-10 cups vegetable stock or water
  • 1 t. cayenne (depending on your heat tolerance, you might want to start with 1/2 t. and add more to taste)
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter**
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk or unsweetened shredded coconut to garnish (optional)

*can substitute any diced vegetable for the cauliflower, broccoli, and sweet potatoes; add slow-cooking things like root vegetables and winter squash first; hold back on anything you want to remain tender-crisp

**I prefer crunchy, but creamy will work too; you can also substitute any other nut or seed butter you like.

1. Heat the oil in a large stock pot over medium-low heat.

2. Peel and mince or grate the garlic and ginger finely and add them to the oil.

3. Dice the onion and add it to the pot. Stir to coat and let cook while you chop the other vegetables (or, if using pre-chopped or bite sized things, just let them cook for 5-10 minutes until they’re soft). The heat was on a little to high when I started so by the time I got done dicing the onions, some of the garlic & ginger had browned. But at least it didn't burn. Starting something over becasue you burned the garlic is so depressing.Potato cubes need not be perfect, just as long as they're all roughly the same size they should all cook through in the same amount of time

4. Peel and dice the potatoes, if using, and any other root vegetables or winter squash into 1/2”  cubes and add to the onions. Repeat with the cauliflower and broccoli, or whatever else you’re putting in the soup.

Everything chopped and in the pot--it takes me about 40 minutes to throw it together and is ready to eat in just over an hour.5. Sprinkle the veggies with cayenne, stir well, and let cook 3-5 minutes. The onions should be turning golden, if not continue cooking, stirring occasionally until they are.

6. Add the canned tomatoes with their liquid and the water or stock, using more water or stock if necessary to cover the vegetables.

7. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the vegetables are all cooked to your liking. 

8. Stir in the peanut butter and the coconut milk (if using), and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Coconut oil, but no coconut milk in this batch.

Please Just Shut Up About the “Family Meal”

The most remarkable thing about my mother is that
for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers.
The original meal has never been found.
-Calvin Trillin

Don't they look like they would talk in Comic Sans?   
Image Credit: She Knows.com

Every few months, someone publishes another article claiming that the “family meal” is dead or dying, and that if we could only revive it, it would help us fix a laundry list of societal ills from obesity to teen pregnancy. These stories usually make four main rhetorical moves:

1) Invoking Tradition and History: They universally portray the family meal as a long-standing tradition that Americans lost sometime in the recent past. For example, a post on Epicurious last week was titled “Radical Call To Take Back The Family Dinner,” which not only implies that it’s something we had at some point but also that something or someone took it from us, possibly without our consent. Frequently, these articles conflate cooking from scratch, eating at home, and eating with the members of your nuclear family, which makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly which behavior they think has declined, or what counts as a “family meal” in the first place—if a nuclear family eats together at a restaurant, does that count? What about eating take-out at home? Is eating in a car an automatic disqualifier, even if the food is homemade and everyone talks about their day?

The historical timeline is also usually pretty fuzzy. It’s almost never clear when the author thinks the “family meal” supposedly prevailed or when we “lost” it—the 1920s? the 1960s? The 1980s? And yet they’re sure it existed at some point. Much like the missing “original” meal in Calvin Trillin’s joke about leftovers, it’s an absent referent.

2) Explaining Why the Family Meal Is a Panacea: Whatever they think it was, and whenever they think we lost it, the authors are clear about at least one thing: family meals are a good thing and we need to get them back. That’s often exemplified by the titles, like the Huffington Post article linked in the Epicurious post: “How Eating at Home Can Save Your Life” or Miriam Weinstein’s 2005 book, The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier and Happier. The authors often point—or at least gesture vaguely—towards studies that have shown correlations between how often children eat with their parents and higher GPAs, lower BMIs, lower rates of alcohol & drug use, and a decreased likelihood of developing an eating disorder. Because everyone knows correlation = causation, right?

3) Blaming Individuals Instead of Structural Changes: Authors sometimes initially point the finger at structural changes like the increasing reliance on industrial-scale agriculture and processing to feed a growing & urbanizing population (dated either to the post-Civil War or post-WW II era) and growing numbers of women in the workforce after the 1960s. However, they all find a way to shift blame, and thus responsibility, back onto individuals. That’s rhetorically necessary, because the goal of the articles is usually to change individuals’ behavior. Also, it would be futile and/or offensive to suggest that the “answer” is a massive population cull, giving up city living, and/or  women leaving the workforce en masse. Indeed, many feminists were rankled by Michael Pollan’s article “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” even though he specifically notes that the amount of time spent on food preparation has declined dramatically even for women who don’t work outside the home and specifically calls on women and men to “make cooking a part of daily life.”

The factors they end up blaming instead are nonsense or, at best, totally un-measurable. My favorite is when they claim that the problem is that Americans are busier than ever…but also lazier than ever. From Epicurious:

We’re certainly at a lazy point in history, though ironically, for all the conveniences at our disposal, we seem even shorter of actual time.

We’re working more hours than ever, but as a culture, we’ve gotten lazy. American kids are running around trying to do more extra-curriculars than ever, especially if they’re college-bound, but they also spend all their time on passive, mind-slushifying electronic entertainments. Chefs, farmers, and food writers have achieved celebrity status, the Food Network and shows like Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and Bravo’s Top Chef achieve stellar ratings, and there’s never been more interest in eating organic, natural, fresh, local food…but we’re a fast food nation addicted to HFCS and cheap, industrially-processed, “empty” calories. Yadda yadda, a dozen other unsubstantiated, contradictory clichés that tell us nothing about what is responsible for Americans cooking and/or eating together less (if indeed they are cooking and eating together less).

4) Calling for Change: All of which leads up to the same old rallying cry: Even if you think you don’t have time, you should make the time! If you don’t know how to cook, you should learn to cook! If you and/or your kids prefer fast food and convenience foods, you’re basically a failure at life and you should learn to roast Brussels sprouts and grow an adult palate, stat. Then they make perhaps the stupidest claim of all: not only is cooking at home and eating together a moral obligation to your children, family, and nation, the real reason you should do it is because it will make you happier. After all, there is no greater joy than sharing a home-cooked meal with the people you love.

I make that face all the time, which may make me a snarky, whiny adoescent. But tell me how I'm wrong. American Beauty dir. Sam Mendes 1999 (from Orange Crate Art)

The “family meal” lecture would be annoying enough as it is—smug, hectoring, and totally unoriginal—but worse, it’s almost entirely based on myths, lies, and logical fallacies.

You Cannot “Take Back” What You Never Had, or Never Lost

Again, the lack of a coherent definition makes it a little difficult to say with any real reliability whether or not the “family meal” has declined, and since when. But here’s why Hyman thinks it’s dying: 

In 1900, 2 percent of meals were eaten outside the home. In 2010, 50 percent were eaten away from home and one in five breakfasts is from McDonald’s. Most family meals happen about three times a week, last less than 20 minutes and are spent watching television or texting while each family member eats a different microwaved "food." More meals are eaten in the minivan than the kitchen. (full article on The Huffington Post)

No sources cited, but let’s just assume that’s all true. Hyman seems to be setting a pretty high bar—his idealized meal has to be eaten inside the home, cooked without a microwave, last longer than 20 minutes, be more frequent than 3x/week and take place in the absence of television or texting. We know that in 1910 at least two of his criteria were being met—we had the eating at home part down and televisions and texting hadn’t yet been invented. But that doesn’t mean people were sitting down to eat together for 20+ minutes on a daily basis, or that the ones who did were cooking those meals themselves.

Actually, the idea of the “family meal” was invented in the mid-19th C. Before that, in wealthy families, children would eat in the nursery with a nanny or servants until they were old enough to be sent off to boarding schools or join their parents and other guests at formal meals, probably in what we’d now consider adolescence. In poorer families, everyday meals were casual affairs and often staggered. As Michael Elins writes in Time magazine:

Back in the really olden days, dinner was seldom a ceremonial event for U.S. families. Only the very wealthy had a separate dining room. For most, meals were informal, a kind of rolling refueling; often only the men sat down. Not until the mid–19th century did the day acquire its middle-class rhythms and rituals; a proper dining room became a Victorian aspiration. When children were 8 or 9, they were allowed to join the adults at the table for instruction in proper etiquette. By the turn of the century, restaurants had appeared to cater to clerical workers, and in time, eating out became a recreational sport.

Other food historians like Harvey Levenstein also agree that it was only in the Victorian era that the “family meal” became a preoccupation—and it emerged first among bourgeois families, for whom eating “correctly” became a crucial way of distinguishing themselves from the working classes. It was increasingly seen as inappropriate to delegate the feeding of children to servants because mealtime was such a crucial opportunity for training in manners, conversation, and taste.

Much of the advice published in the 19th C. aimed at Victorian mothers focused on the proper care of the adolescent female body, including how daughters should eat and exercise to cultivate the correct social identity and moral character. Meat and spicy foods were thought to stimulate and signal sexual desire so their consumption was seen as unsuitable for girls and women. In a more general sense, eating, food preparation, digestion, and defecation all became constructed as coarse and un-ladylike. According to Joan Jacobs Brumberg, this combination of smothering maternal concern about eating and the elevation of restraint and physical delicacy prompted the emergence of anorexia nervosa among middle-class girls in the Victorian era (Fasting Girls p. 134).

Furthermore, concerns that the “family meal” is dying are almost as old as the idea of the “family meal” itself. According to nutrition policy and research analyst Paul Fieldhouse:

[The] nuclear concept of the family meal is a fairly modern phenomenon… and there is evidence that every generation has lamented its demise. Already in the 1920s there were worries being expressed about how leisure activities and the rise of the car were undermining family mealtimes! (From Eating Together: The Culture of the Family Meal)

The fact that the “family meal” is a modern idea, was historically limited mostly to the wealthy, and has apparently always been on the decline doesn’t mean its prevalence hasn’t been historically variable. The statistics I find the most convincing are the ones Robert Putnam cites in Bowling Alone:

The fraction of married Americans who say “definitely” that “our whole family usually eats dinner together” has declined by a third over the last twenty years, from about 50 percent to 34 percent…. The ratio of families who customarily dine together to those who customarily dine apart has dropped from more than three to one in 1977-78 to half that in 1998-99. (Bowling Alone p. 100)

That’s a considerably more conservative definition than Hyman’s—Putnam is interested in togetherness, not what kind of food you’re eating or whether the television is on—and even so, neither its original prevalence nor its decline are all that staggering. The idealized "family meal": the Cleaver family in an episode calls "Teacher Comes to Dinner" first aired in 1959.The phenomenon of nuclear families eating together probably peaked sometime between the 1940s and 1970s, but it was still habitual for less than half of the American population and probably mostly limited to relatively affluent, dual-parent, single-income households. And despite how much more free time Americans supposedly had to cook, and how much harder-working they were back then, we know that most of those households relied on domestic servants, restaurant meals, take-out, and/or industrially-processed convenience foods at least some of the time. The heyday of the “family meal” was also the heyday of Jell-O salads and Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Cookbook

By the 1990s, the percent of families “usually” eating together had declined by 16%, which is significant. However, recent trends point towards a revival since the 1990s, not further decline. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, the number of adolescents who reported eating with their families “most nights” increased 23% between 1998 and 2005. In CASA’s 2010 survey of over 2000 teens and 456 parents, 60% said they eat dinner with their families at least five times a week. And there’s more good news for people who think the “family meal” has to happen at home: in the last two years, restaurant traffic in the U.S. has fallen, probably due to the recession.

In other words, it’s not at all clear that the family meal is dying or that taking it back would be all that “radical.” More coming soon on why it doesn’t really matter if the television is on or who did the cooking (at least in terms of benefits for children), why increasing the prevalence of family meals—even if you could achieve that just by scolding people about it—probably wouldn’t fix anything, and what could be done that might actually improve American eating habits…

New Year’s Eve pictures and links

With the spiced nuts and chocolate-covered buttercreams already done in advance, almost everything else could be made the day before the party and assembled or baked the day of. Before

Hey, 2011

Welcome to the new blog austerity. Rather than write out special feature posts for all the recipes I used for our fourth annual New Year’s Eve party, I’m just going to post pictures and links with brief annotations about how I modified them (if I did) or how I’d do them differently if I make them again. They’re all finger foods, so they’re perfect for entertaining or taking to an open house party where people will be grazing rather than sitting down with plates & silverware.

Clockwise from the bottom right:

Marshmallows with Toasted Coconut
Smoked Trout Pâté
Bacon-Wrapped Dates Stuffed with Almonds (represented by the empty dish)
Goat Cheese & Pine Nut Canapés
Spinach-Artichoke Pinwheels
Spiced Nuts
Bourbon Balls
Assorted Cheesecake Bites
Fig and Blue Cheese Crackers
Scallop Mousse in Phyllo Cups
Chocolate-covered Buttercreams
Candied Cranberries
Crudité Platter with Harissa Dip

After

More pictures and recipes after the jump.

Marshmallows with Toasted Coconut

These were kind of like little poufy macaroon bites.

I used Alton Brown’s Homemade Marshmallow Recipe with almond extract in place of the vanilla, and I coated the pan in toasted coconut, sprinkled more on top, and rolled the sticky edges of the cut marshmallows in yet more. That required about 3 cups of sweetened shredded coconut, which I toasted by spreading it on cookie sheets and baking it for about 15 minutes in a 300F oven, stirring it every 5 minutes or so until it was golden brown. If you want to know more about the history of the marshmallow, that’s here.

Smoked Trout Pâté on Baguette

Would also make a lovely molded dish for a buffet served with crackers or toasted pita.

Based on a Good Housekeeping recipe, which only has 2/5 stars even though the sole reviewer says “AAA+” which seems a little hyperbolic, but maybe that’s just the nature of ebayspeak. For the party, I served it on homemade, sourdough-risen baguette. I plan on making it again the next time I make bagels because it evokes the lox & cream cheese thing, but smokier and creamier. I used regular cream cheese and mayonnaise and added a tablespoon of capers and a pinch of cayenne. The only other thing I’ll change the next time I make it is to scale it down, probably to 1/3 of the original, because the original recipe makes a kind of epic amount of pâté. Quoth Brian, who was in charge of spreading it on the baguette slices: “This is so boring. I don’t remember when I wasn’t spreading pâté on bread.”

Bacon-Wrapped Dates Stuffed with Almonds

It turns out if you decide to secure the bacon with toothpicks and then you broil the dates instead of baking them, the toothpicks may go up in flame just like matchsticks and be basically useless for serving. Live and learn: soak the toothpicks in water first.

You don’t really need a recipe for this, but here’s one from Martha Stewart. In the past, I’ve stuffed them with either chorizo or goat cheese, which usually required cutting the dates in half and was kind of a pain, which is why I went with almonds this year. I’ve also heard of people using pistachios, blue cheese, cream cheese, parmeggiano matchsticks, or ricotta. Last year, I served them in a sweet & sour pineapple/balsamic reduction sauce, which I kept warm in a chaffing dish. You could also make a spicy chorizo-laced dipping sauce. Or you can forego the stuffing and/or sauce entirely and they’ll still be pretty delicious.  

Herbed Goat Cheese with Toasted Pine Nuts on Baguette

This might also work as a vegetable and/or cracker dip, possibly thinned with a little cream.Not based on anything—really, the recipe is in the name. I combined a big log of goat cheese (10 oz) with the zest of a lemon, two cloves of garlic zapped for 15-20 seconds in the microwave just to tame the bite a little, and about tablespoon of fresh thyme and rosemary. Salt and pepper to taste and a pinch of cayenne. You could substitute a head of roasted garlic instead of raw, use 1-2 t. dried herbs instead of fresh, add a pinch of smoked paprika, some lemon juice, some olives or capers, or whatever you like. I toasted the pine nuts (about 1/3 cup) in a skillet over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes until they were fragrant and beginning to brown. You could also use toasted almond slices or chopped pecans or top it with something else, like roasted cherry tomatoes or pimentos. Like the trout pâté, this was served on slices of homemade sourdough-risen baguette.

Spinach-Artichoke Pinwheels

I got this from a Southern Living recipe posted on Myrecipes, and after making them three or four times I think I’ve decided they’re prettier than they are tasty. Perhaps they needed more cheese or something? The idea’s not bad, especially because you can make the filling and roll the puff pastry logs months in advance, and then it takes less than a half an hour to slice and bake them, and that’s including the time it takes to pre-heat the oven. I may try it again with pimento cheese instead of the spinach-artichoke spread. That wouldn’t provide as much of a visual contrast, but I think the spicy, tangy cheese filling would be a better foil for the buttery puff pastry. Or maybe I just need to add more/better parmesan and a hit of cayenne to the spinach-artichoke filling.

Spiced Nuts

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That’s nearly 4 lbs of spiced nuts, approximately 50% of which are cashews. The imbalance was Brian’s doing, but I’m in favor because whenever I encounter a bowl of mixed nuts that includes cashews, I have to exert stupid amounts of willpower to be nut-blind and eat whatever happens to be on top, even if that’s a peanut. And sometimes, when I see other people near the bowl, I eye them suspiciously to see if they’re picking out the cashews the way I really want to. Which has resulted, more than once, in me catching someone else in the act of cashew-preferential nut consumption, and momentarily thinking uncharitable thoughts about them…before rushing over to join them before all the cashews are gone. My nut preferences are more or less moot once they’re all coated in a crunchy cinnamon and cayenne-spiked meringue—at which point, they’re all like crack—but it certainly doesn’t seem like you can go wrong by tipping the balance in favor of cashews.

Bourbon Balls

Much of the alcohol evaporates, so the booze provides more flavor than bite. Still, best to use something you like the taste of--apparently rum is a good alternative if you're not a fan of bourbon From Melissa Clark on Food52, these are basically balls of bourbon-soaked chocolate cookie crumbs studded with pecans. I let the “dough” sit, covered, for about 8 hours and thought it was a little dry when I began to shape the balls. In retrospect, I probably should have just added another glug of bourbon, but I thought maybe that was the texture it was supposed to have. I didn’t actually measure the cookie crumbs, because one package of Nabisco’s Famous Chocolate Wafers seemed like about 2.5 cups, but maybe the recipe is actually designed for a little less cookie? They were good, but definitely not super moist, so if I make them again, I’ll follow my instincts and add the extra bourbon.

Assorted Cheesecake Bites

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This was the one thing I thought was pretty mediocre. I used an eHow recipe, halved. The original calls for only 1/2 cup sugar for 24 oz. cream cheese. I added a little more, but they still weren’t nearly as sweet as I usually expect cheesecake to be. I also wasn’t crazy about the vanilla wafer crust—if I make them again, I’ll do a more traditional graham cracker base. I also didn’t get especially creative with the toppings. Maybe in the future, if I make these again, I’ll flavor half of the cream cheese mixture with pumpkin & spices or melted dark chocolate and make little marbled cheesecake bites. As is, these are just kind of boring.

Fig and Blue Cheese Crackers

My friend Sara recommends eating them upside down so you taste the sweetness of the fig first, otherwise it can be overshadowed by the blue cheese.

This recipe from Food52 is similar to classic southern cheese straws—essentially a pastry crust recipe substituting cheese for some of the butter—but instead of cutting them into sticks, you cut them in  circles, make a tiny depression in the middle, and fill it with a dab of fig preserves. The result is like a little, buttery, bite-sized version of one of my favorite salads. I imagine you could use any kind of cheese/fruit pairing you like—goat cheese and raspberry, sharp cheddar with cherry or apricot, etc. Additionally, you can make them a day or two in advance, but make sure they’re fully cooled before you store them between layers of waxed paper or the fig preserves will stick.

Scallop MousseIf you have access to an Asian market or grocery store with a decent selection of Asian foods, you can probably get roe for about $2/oz rather than $20/oz. Another one from Food52, this one from ChefJune. Brian made this, and we both thought it was really amazing…until he added the vermouth-soaked gelatin. After that, it was polarizing. Brian thought it was so bad he didn’t want to serve it, but at least one person at the party said it was his favorite thing. I thought it was good, but not as good as it was before adding the vermouth. In the future, I would use white wine instead of the vermouth. The recipe shows it molded into one big shell, and also suggested using madeleine molds for individual serving-sizes. We just chilled it in a bowl and then scooped it into pre-baked phyllo cups with a melon baller.

Chocolate-covered Buttercreams

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I’ve already posted about these, but a special message to the haters out there: don’t knock my flavor choices until you’ve tried them. I’m not “chasing the next thing.” Peppermint, cinnamon, orange, lavender, almond, and rose are all traditional candy flavorings. Lavender and rose aren’t very common in the U.S. today (although many gourmet chocolatiers and several national brands do sell lavender-flavored chocolate) but they have been popular at other times and places. In the words of a kindergartener: Don’t yuck my yum.

Candied Cranberries

If you don't overcook the syrup, they'll be prettierWhole, fresh cranberries coated in a hard candy shell and rolled in more sugar for sparkle—they pop when you bite into them, tart and sweet and totally delicious. I sort of followed Leah Bloom’s recipe on the Examiner, but I let the simple syrup cook to hard ball stage. That turned out to be a terrible idea, because it began to set into one big sauce-pan sized chunk of cranberry brittle almost before it was cool enough to try to separate the cranberries out and roll them in sugar. So next time, I’ll actually follow the recipe. These would make a lovely garnish for a holiday dessert, too—they’re like little edible jewels.

Harissa Dip with Crudité Platter

Rippley carrots and cucumbers courtesy of my new mandoline, which was a Christmas present.

I just kind of made this up as I went along: a jar of roasted red peppers, a half-pound block of feta cheese, 2 or 3 ounces of cream cheese, 3 or 4 teaspoons of harissa, a pinch of cayenne, a handful of fresh cilantro, the juice of about half a lemon, and salt to taste—all whizzed in a food processor until smooth. Creamy, briny, tangy, spicy. Thinned with a little more lemon juice and perhaps a little olive oil, this might make a nice salad dressing, too.

Happy New Year, everyone!