Adventures in Yeasted Doughs: Learning to Work With Yeast

Delicious yeasted cake topped with caramelized honeyed almonds - a bee sting cake, or bienenstich

I’ve mentioned here and there that one of my goals in 2017 is learning to work with yeast, and regularly making our own homemade bread. Yes, you can buy a cheap loaf of what passes for bread at the store; most stores also have bakeries that do a slightly better job. But those loaves tend to be pricey.

I think there’s also something satisfying about doing it yourself. I still have some vague aspirations towards homesteading (I’m going to try to grow some of our food this summer, for example). Bread baking taps into those mild feelings of self-sufficiency, and when you struggle with chronic depression, as I do, feeling like you’re Doing Something can really be a balm.

I like to think it also reduces waste somewhat; I’m less likely to toss the end of a homemade loaf, for example, and it eliminates the paper or plastic packaging from the store. I haven’t quite worked out yet what the efficiency difference is in my using my own oven versus the effectively communal oven at the store. I sort of assume that my keeping the ingredients at home versus those kept in a bakery is a wash, even if I use Prime Pantry (affiliate link), for example. Don’t quote me on that, though.

Yeast doughs can be intimidating. Here's one baker's journey to happy bread-baking.

Noodling on whether it’s actually worth it financially and environmentally, though, there’s the challenge. I’ve never been a natural at yeast doughs. My hands run hot, and somehow, even knowing that, I inevitably overflour during kneading and end up with dense, sort of yucky loaves. I’ve always used that as an excuse to not try very hard; I’ve had a few forays with bread machines, but I feel like they kind of smell funny and make weird loaves. I keep losing my KitchenAid’s dough hook, somehow. Et cetera.

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Frugal February Meal Plan

Our January meal plan has gone pretty well, so now it’s time to come up with one for February! I have really enjoyed having the whole month planned out – it freed up my Saturdays to do other things just for fun. It also made grocery shopping a little more efficient. There are a few things I’d like to tighten up a bit more, so here we go with the frugal February meal plan!

Simple, inexpensive options for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks - for the entire month of February.

Goals

Continue to eat breakfast and lunch at home. We did pretty well with this, but I definitely picked up fast food lunches on days when we were out of the house all afternoon. Wednesdays are particularly challenging, since we also have commitments in the morning. I’m going to try to make stacks of sandwiches the night before to take in the car with us. I anticipate much preschooler screaming about this. I wonder if I can make him believe that Sonic sells PB&J?

At any rate, on days at home, we did pretty well. Lunch has always been a sticking point for me. A friend said of herself that she’s “kind of a princess about food,” and honestly, I am too. There’s a whole long backstory about food insecurity, anxiety, and wanting to control and enjoy just this one thing but that’s for another post, I think. So I’m proud of myself for being willing to eat basic, cheap food for lunch.

Repeat meals more often. If you look at the January meal plan, you’ll see that there wasn’t a lot of repetition. We do have Wednesday designated as leftover day, because we get home late and nobody wants to really cook. This also helps with using up food and not wasting it because it got forgotten in the back of the fridge.

I want to specifically focus on a limited recipe base, though. I think I get a little carried away with finding fun recipes, and I found I was buying limited-use ingredients most weeks. My goal this month is to make sure we use everything more than once. This should help the budget and food waste and also continue to pare down the pantry.

…but still have a couple of special meals. After all, Valentine’s Day is coming, and I already bought a pack of USDA Prime sirloin at Costco. (Amazing deal, by the way, and we like sirloin just fine.) Plus, when you are a former foodie, I think it’s important to have meals you can look forward to. I thought I’d want to have them more often but it turns out I’m OK just eating kind of whatever most days as long as I can anticipate something really delicious every week or two. Time passes more quickly than I’d like so I’m never really waiting that long, eh?

Implement family coffee/tea time in the afternoon. My husband has a major sweet tooth, and of course my son does, because what three-year-old is going to turn down cake? I’ve found that we end up with a lot of junky storebought sugary snacks and I am not a fan. Also, I enjoy baking and I’ve been doing a lot of it. In Classic German Baking, Luisa Weiss mentions coffee hour midafternoon, with a lovely sweet snack and coffee and conversation. Teatime, of course, is another great tradition.
Also, by 2pm, everyone needs a reset. I am grumpy, burned out, and tired of being shrieked at; it’s not quite toddler naptime, since she’s still on two naps, and I just want to be done. I think sitting down together and enjoying a treat will be a nice break. Plus it’ll hopefully ruin the kids for storebought junk food forever. Ha.

Start baking homemade bread regularly. I got a copy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day and I just made our first batch of dough this week. Our kitchen actually isn’t climate controlled so it’s basically cold enough to keep the dough out on the breakfast nook table (which tells you it’s too cold to really eat in there…).

Click to see the meal plan and my notes!

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The Best Chili Ever – in an Instant Pot

Deliciously complex chili in under 90 minutes - and it's better as leftovers!

It’s a big claim to make, I know. Not just the best chili ever, but in an Instant Pot, too? Yes, friends. It’s true. This is the most amazing chili ever, and you will mark the day you first made it in your calendar and celebrate its anniversary every year.

OK, that might be hyperbole – but only a little. This recipe started as something I saw on Sara Moulton’s old show on Food TV – before it was Food Network, I think. Does anyone else remember her hour-long show, where viewers were encouraged to cook along? And folks would call in with questions? I loved that show. Sara Moulton is the bee’s knees. She was also the executive chef at the dining room of Gourmet magazine (may it rest in peace) for a long time. For all its bourgeois sensibilities, Gourmet really only ever printed quality recipes – you can still trust them.

An old roommate gave away my entire box of Gourmet back issues, not that I’m still bitter.

Anyway, I saw this recipe presented on Sara’s show, and I thought, “that sounds alright; I’ll give it a try.” It’s probably been fifteen years – see, I didn’t mark the date in my calendar, and now I regret it – and I’ve made a few tweaks here and there. But this is still my go-to, #1, best chili ever recipe, and the Instant Pot has made it so fast and easy there’s no reason not to make it.

Deliciously complex chili in under 90 minutes - and it's better as leftovers!

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Cooking From Your Pantry: Use It Up

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Have you heard that saying? I’m sure you have – it’s a good one. And lots of frugal blog articles at this time of year suggest making use of what’s in your pantry to lower your grocery bill. But how does cooking from your pantry work? When you look in your cupboards, do you see a random hodgepodge of food, instead of potential meals? If you haven’t had your grocery budget on lockdown and a set meal plan, chances are good you have a slightly strange assortment going on – but that’s OK.

Reduce grocery spending AND food waste by cooking from your pantry.

I’m going to lay out a few steps you can follow, as well as some specific ideas to use. Find the ones that work for you, and you’ll be cooking from your pantry in no time. Perhaps for dinner tonight?

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Replacing Paper with Cloth, One Step at a Time: Paper Towels

I’ve been thinking lately about the environment, our budget, and household waste. The amount of trash we generate is kind of alarming; not only is it bad for the planet, it’s bad for our bottom line. We’ve tried here and there to replace paper with cloth – paper towels, napkins, tissues, and feminine hygiene, primarily – but it never seems to stick for long. We’re going to try again, though, without changing a million other things at the same time. Just replacing paper with cloth, one step at a time. If you’re thinking about doing the same thing, let’s give it a try together. I’m planning to start by replacing paper towels with cloth.

Replacing paper with cloth, one step at a time - starting with paper towels

The biggest obstacle in the past has been a lack of laundry facilities or a lack of laundry routine. We have a washer and dryer now, so that’s become easier. But I know that without a routine, permanent transition to reusable cloths is never going to take root for us. I’ve found that, with any kind of change, I need to make it habitual. This will come as zero surprise to anyone who has read any kind of self-improvement blog, book, or tweet, I’m sure.

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Budget-Friendly January Meal Plan

Ah, yes, January – that time of the year when we make and stick to resolutions and feel full of potential. I’ve decided to take advantage this year and plan out an entire month of meals, because I think we all know that my enthusiasm on January 20 is going to be 15% of what it is now, at best. It’s always nicer to make changes in community with others, so I’m sharing our budget-friendly January meal plan with you. I hope you’ll let me know if you use it!

Budget-friendly, slightly low-carb, hearty winter recipes for January meal planning.

Our family has a few goals related to food and meals in the new year, and you might share some of them. However, I plan to implement changes gradually. I tend to be a big-bites kind of person, which, after 37 years, I’ve finally realized can lead to burnout. My instinct is to try to do it all at once, and that does work for me for some things in life. But I’ve got three other people to consider when I make changes to something as basic and as vital as what we eat, and I don’t want to overwhelm myself or them. So, this is an easing in to some of the changes and a further refinement of others.

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