Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Midnight Chicken (& Other Recipes Worth Living For)


Cook the Books is a bimonthly foodie book club marrying the pleasures of reading and cooking. Here are the club guidelines:

1. Order, buy, or borrow the appointed book.
2. After reading the book, cook up something delicious inspired by the book and blog about it. If you don’t have a blog, one of us four co-hosts would be happy to post your entry as a guest blogger. Make sure to include a link to this COOK THE BOOKS blog so others can find out about the details.
3. In the meantime, feel free to suggest other food-rich readings for a future round of COOK THE BOOKS by leaving a comment after this post.
The December-January selection is Midnight Chicken by Ella Risbridger.
"There are lots of ways to start a story, but this one begins with a chicken.

There was a time when, for Ella Risbridger, the world had become overwhelming. Sounds were too loud, colors were too bright, everyone moved too fast. One night she found herself lying on her kitchen floor, wondering if she would ever get up--and it was the thought of a chicken, of roasting it, and of eating it, that got her to her feet and made her want to be alive.

Midnight Chicken is a cookbook. Or, at least, you’ll flick through these pages and find recipes so inviting that you will head straight for the kitchen: roast garlic and tomato soup, uplifting chili-lemon spaghetti, charred leek lasagna, squash skillet pie, spicy fish finger sandwiches and burnt-butter brownies. It’s the kind of cooking you can do a little bit drunk, that is probably better if you’ve got a bottle of wine open and a hunk of bread to mop up the sauce.

But if you settle down and read it with a cup of tea (or a glass of that wine), you’ll also discover that it’s an annotated list of things worth living for--a manifesto of moments worth living for. This is a cookbook to make you fall in love with the world again."
Happily, I found a copy of Midnight Chicken at my library. What an amazing book this is! Ella Risbridger tells the story of her journey back into life through cooking and baking. I loved this memoir/cookbook/book about happiness.
I, of course, chose to try one of her bread recipes: AGA Mama's Milk Bread. First, a note about an AGA: it's apparently some sort of radiator, and Risbridger uses it to help her bread rise.
AGA Mama's Milk Bread
Makes 2 little loaves (1 for now, and 1 for the freezer)
500g milk    1 tsp fine salt
25g butter, plus extra for greasing    1 x 7g sachet instant yeast
700g strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting    1 egg
flaky sea salt, for scattering

Set the saucepan on the stove over the lowest-possible heat, and stir very gently. You want the butter to slowly melt into the milk: enjoy the gold slinking into the white; spring-like, glossy, the colour of crocuses. Don't let the milk get hotter than blood heat - it should feel comfortable on your fingertips the whole time. When the butter has melted, take the pan off the heat.
Weigh out your flour into a large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, then scatter in the salt and yeast. Stir everything so you can't see either the salt or the yeast.
Now you need to combine the wet ingredients with the dry, using either a stand mixer or your hands: you're trying to get a smooth, slightly sticky dough - which, after kneading, will become a smooth, stretchy dough. You may not need all the milk and butter, so you'll want to add it carefully. The amount you need can vary based on where you are, and how wet it is that day, and things like that, so to get really good bread, go slowly and keep an eye on it. This feels daunting. It isn't. All it means is: if the dough has come together smoothly, without shaggy edges of loose flour, you've added enough.

I'm going to give the stand mixer instructions first, because they are very simple. Fit the dough hook to your mixer and, with the mother running on about the second setting, very slowly tip the milk and butter into the flour, salt and yeast. After 6-7 minutes of electric 'kneading,' you should have a smooth dough.
If you're working the dough by hand, you just have to get stuck in. Slowly add the milk and butter - no, slower than that - and work it for at least 10 minutes. Hands in, folding the dough over and over itself, bringing your hands together, and then apart, pushing it, pummelling it: really go for it. Once the dough starts to come together, tip it out onto a clean, flour-dusted work surface and keep pummelling until you have a supple, pillowy ball of dough.
Butter the bowl the dough has been in (if you're using a stand mixer, pick the dough up in one hand, butter the bowl with the other and drop the dough back in), and butter some cling film. Pop the dough back in, stretch the buttered cling film taut over the top, then put a tea towel over that and set the bowl somewhere warm: the airing cupboard, a chair by the radiator, the windowsill in high summer. (The AGA lady leaves hers by the AGA, of course.) Leave it for about an hour, or until doubled in size, and while it's doing that, grease two 450g (1 lb) loaf tins with butter.
Punch the dough down once, swiftly, to 'knock it back,' then lift it out of the bowl and onto a flour-dusted work surface. Cut the dough in half, and shape each half into a loaf. Put the loaves into the tins, seam side down, cover loosely with the buttered cling film and return them to their warm place to rise for another hour, or until doubled in size again.
As the loaves start to peek over the tops of their tins, set your oven to 200 degrees C. Beat the egg in a small bowl and brush the loaves with the beaten egg. Scatter with a little flaky salt, cover again and leave until fully risen. You know what you want your loaves to look like: like that - high, graceful. 

Slash the top of each loaf with a sharp knife, just once, and quickly slide your loaves into the hot oven. After 25 minutes, take the loaves from the oven, and carefully turn them upside down, tipping them from their tins. They should have a golden crust on top, be first on the sides, and sound hollow when you rap the bottom with your knuckles. Return the loaves to the oven, without their tins, and bake for 5 minutes more, so they're golden all over.
Find the salted butter. Find the bread knife. Take the loaves from the oven once more, and cut yourself a hot slice of new bread. Butter thickly. Isn't that something else?

Favorite quote from the book: "This may have looked like a cookbook, but what it really is is an annotated list of things worth living for: a manifesto of moments worth living for. Dinner parties, and Saturday afternoons in the kitchen, and lazy breakfasts, and picnics on the heath; evenings alone with a bowl of soup, or a heavy pot of clams for one. The bright clean song of lime and salt, and the smoky hum of caramel-edged onions. Soft goat's cheese and crisp pastry. A six-hour ragu simmering on the stove, a glass of wine in your hand. Moments, hours, mornings, afternoons, days...Your life is like a stockpot, simmering with all these minutes: everything you've ever learned and everything you've ever loved. Every time you're in the kitchen you're alive with all the people whose books you've read, and the people who taught you, and the people who loved you. Nobody is born knowing how to cook. It all comes from people, breaking bread together, and talking, and loving, and sharing, and it is probably terribly trite, but I can't think of anything more important than this."

For more wordless photos, go to Wordless Wednesday.

Weekend Cooking was created by Beth Fish Reads and is now hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader (and Baker). It is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.

Cook the Books is a bimonthly foodie book club marrying the pleasures of reading and cooking.

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