Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer – 2013) A-

A movie with very little dialogue and striking music. It is set in Scotland and follows an alien who looks like Scarlet Johansson. In the silent long opening scene we see her take on the new skin and dress herself in the clothes of her dead predecessor. We can immediately tell they have been doing this for a while. She walks among the people and she seems equal parts a child, a seductress and a spider. It’s fascinating and haunting. Her mission is not really spelled out for us but seems to consist of luring men into her lair where they sink and dissolve into a black pool while she just walks on the surface. The men seem to get “processed” for…? what? food for the home planet? Doesn’t matter really. Under the Skin is a portrait of an alien who is born, starts to learn about the world around it and maybe starts to feel something. It’s sad, creepy and at times just ugly in its imagery.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese – 2014) A

Money, greed, debauchery and drugs. It’s all way way over the top and so is Scorsese’s movie about Jordan Belfort, a Wall Street guy who made it insanely rich off stocks in the 80’s and 90’s while still in his twenties. It’s a movie with no boundaries and no inhibitions. It revels in excess. Why shouldn’t it? Scorsese has made movies about mobsters, disturbed individuals, small time criminals and gangs in 19th century New York. Here he has a story about an admittedly boring subject. his main characters are criminals but they are no Henry Hill. In one seen one of them vomits at the sight of some blood. What they are is group of con artists playing with a whole lot of money. This is boring and a lesser director would’ve made a very shitty movie with this material.

What Scorsese does instead is give us a film that is fast paced and loud. The characters are colorful but by and large are horrible people. So why did I keep watching this long movie about a boring topic with vain characters? Because it is entertaining and the material handled just right by a master film maker. He makes Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) talk directly to us, tell his story from his perspective. We are mostly with him, we can hear his thoughts lots of the time, he breaks the fourth wall often and lets us in to his most depraved thoughts, a bit like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. He also uses a lot of replays of various scenes to tell different points of view. Some scenes that you would think should go on for a few seconds go on for a long time, like when Belfort is trying to get into his car after taking a lot of bad drugs or when he is discussing with his “team” what they can and cannot do with the little people hired to be the entertainment for the office! These really should not work but they do. We get to be transported into these characters’ world and live there for a bit instead of just watching a quick story about some crooks. The supporting cast does a great job (especially Jonah Hill) with injecting energy and humor into the story. It might be funny at times and it is very entertaining but The Wolf of Wall Street is really a sad portrait of a man-child and his immature crew who happened to have great sales skills and little morals.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney – 2015) A

It’s crazy how an organization, a cult really, based on the writings and insane ramblings of a self admitted crazy person with billions of dollars in its coffers can remain tax exempt while it freely commits crimes. Going Clear does a great job of exposing the crimes that happened and continue to happen under the guise of Scientology. It shows much footage of the person who started the whole thing, L. Ron Hubbard (or LRH as the brainwashed call him), and his motivations – namely how to make money and not pay taxes. The most compelling and horrific stuff though relates to the current chairman, Miscavige, a true megalomaniac cult leader. We get a clear picture of how he controls his church’s image, the extortion war he waged on the IRS and how he keeps his subjects (including people like Tom Cruise) in check. Other than providing me with a fascinating exposè of Scientology, Going Clear really puts The Master in perspective. P.T. Anderson’s movie makes much more sense now. I need to revisit that for sure.

Bread: 100% Rye Starter, Tartine and No-Knead Brioche

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It’s time for a proper bread baking post. It’s been a long time since I’ve dedicated an entry to bread and the last one was not that informative. It’s truly fascinating as to how much we can do to stretch the capabilities of what flour and water with a bit of bacteria (yeast) can do. The first loaf I ever baked I credit to Jamie Oliver more than 14 years ago. He made it sound like a no-brainer to bake a loaf of bread. Ditto with the first ever naturally leavened loaf (sourdough). I made my starter using his method and have been maintaining it for 12 years or so. Since then I’d like to think I’ve come a long way and the credit for this post really goes to Chad Richardson of Tartine bakery/books, to a blog called Girl Meets Rye and to the couple from Ideas in Food.

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100% Rye Starter on the left and the Levain on the right

Tartine bakery is now a very popular and duly lauded place in San Francisco. I’ve never been there but  have heard about the place and seen the books. I did not think that I needed yet another bread book until I saw Tartine Book No.3: Modern, Ancient, Classic, Whole at Powell’s Book Shop in Portland. It focuses on whole grain baking and highlights ancient grains and flours like Kamut and Einkorn. Chad Robertson’s recipes only use natural leaven and no commercial yeast at all. The book really pushes what you can do with flour and water using long fermentation times, fermented grains, porridges, sprouted grains. There is one master recipe or more like process and almost all formulations in the book follow that process to make mostly round rustic loaves.

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A loaf made with 20% rye flour, whole wheat and white flour

While doing some research about Tartine methods of baking I stumbled on the Girl Meets Rye blog. My key takeaway from that blog is to switch to using a 100% rye starter for my bread – all my naturally leavened bread. So, I took a portion of my old white flour starter and converted it into a rye starter. It’s made a huge difference in the flavor and fermentation activity due to the high levels of enzymes in rye. Another simple trick I learned from Girl Meets Rye is to store my starter in small jar and refresh it in there using 50 gr starter, 50 gr rye flour, 50 gr flour. How do I know easily how much starter is in the jar? Well weigh the empty jar first and record the weight right on it (stupid obvious, but I had not thought of doing that!). My jar weighs 260 gr, so I ensure I have a total weight of 310 gr with the starter and then add the flour and water. She also streamlines the baking process by using parchment paper to move the bread from bowl to pot. A very helpful tip when dealing with a crazy hot cast iron pot.

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I typically refresh the starter about three times before proceeding to the next step per Robertson, making a leaven. The recipes in Tartine No. 3 all use this leaven made from a tablespoon of active starter and equal amounts of flour and water (200 gr each). That makes a lot of leaven and is enough to make more bread than I need. It actually makes more than you need to make any of the recipes in the book (typically each recipe makes 2 loaves). So I usually make half of that for my leaven and it works great.  Robertson uses “High-extraction flour” a lot but this is not something easily found in my local grocery store. This flour is basically similar to white flour but has more of the wheat bran still in it, almost like a halfway flour between whole wheat and white. That explains why Robertson advises homebakers to use a mix of 50-50 of whole and white flour to mimic the high extraction stuff. This has worked perfectly for me using King Arthur All-Purpose and Whole Wheat flours.

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Leaven and the 20% rye bread mix

The fermentation of these loaves is long but pretty simple. The leaven, various flours/seeds/other and water are stirred together in a bowl. Over the next couple of hours the dough is turned and quickly folded every 30 minutes to develop the gluten. The dough then ferments and rises for another couple of hours. The bread can be formed into boules at this point, allowed to rise for two hour and baked. Usually it works much better for my schedule and -more importantly- for superior flavor to form the dough, place it in a cloth lined bowl and let it sit in the fridge overnight (a process called retardation). I bake it straight from the fridge with great results.

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Baking in a dutch oven – a Le Creuset pot in my case- is not new to the Tartine process. I first heard about it and have been using it since Jim Lahey via Mark Bittman re-popularized the No Knead Bread. Here is the streamlined process I follow now:

  1. Put the pot in the oven and heat it up as high as it goes (550 F)
  2. Use a parchment paper covered peel to gently drop the loaf from it’s fermentation bowl onto the parchment and brush off any residual flour on the surface
  3. Remove the hot pot from the oven and uncover it
  4. Lift the loaf with the parchment and gently put it in the -now very hot- pot. slash the loaf or not, depending on nothing but my mood really. Not slashing makes it look craggy and very rustic.
  5. Cover the pot and put it back in the oven for 20 mins
  6. We do not want the bottom of the loaf to burn so after the first 20 minutes I put the pot on a baking sheet and slide it back in the oven. Reduce the temp to 425 F and bake for another 10 mins.
  7. Uncover the pot, put it on another cool baking sheet and put the whole thing on the first sheet (so now the pot sits on two baking sheets) and put it back in the oven. Again the goal is to insulate the bottom of the loaf so that it would not burn.
  8. Bake it for another 18-20 mins until it is deeply dark brown on the outside. Remove it from the pot and let is cool on a rack.
  9. Through out the whole process enjoy the amazing smells that will be coming out of the oven. Really heavenly stuff.

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This is a loaf that has a good percentage of cooked barley mixed in. Rolled in oat flakes while proofing.

All I’ve talked about so far is lean bread with no oil, butter, dairy or eggs. That’s the bread I make on a regular basis and use for everything. I was curious how my rye starter would work with very rich breads. In their book, Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work Aki and Alex have a fantastic no-knead brioche recipe. I love it because it is easy to make, not very fussy and produces superb rich brioche. The recipe like the ones from Tartine relies on long fermentation times and refrigerator rest as well as a boatload of eggs and butter. I followed their recipe as usual but used leaven instead of using any commercial yeast.

Brioche-Rye

My concern with the brioche is the large amount of fat in the dough would somehow interfere with the natural leaven’s work. I should not have worried. The brioche loaves exceeded my expectations. They rose beautifully and had an spectacular flavor. In addition to the usual sweet buttery taste these guys had a deep nutty taste with a slightly sour background that can only be achieved from natural leavening.

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The brioche is a favorite in our house for French toast topped with maple apples or toasted and topped with jam. It also goes perfectly with savory toppings like a rich chicken liver parfait or a slice of sharp cheddar. This rye starter really is one of the best bread improvements I’ve made since I started baking.

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Kingsman: The Secret Service (Mathew Vaughn – 2014) A-

I love the Bond movies, one in particular holds a special place in my heart. Moonraker is not particularly good but it is the very first 007 movie I’ve ever seen and I saw it repeatedly on VHS. Kingsman reminded me of Moonraker and countless other classic over-the-top crazy Bond movies. Kingsman even has a similar plot to Moonraker including a space scene! It also has an eccentric villain, a cool secret society whose members are remarkably well dressed and well trained, a brunette with crazy sharp swords instead of legs and slick well-choreographed fight scenes…one in particular is both insanely good and uncomfortable with how violent it is. The film is an origin story of sorts and a heck of a fun romp.

Steak and Guinness Pie

Beef and Guinness Pie-VegBritish food is good. It could be great. To me, it is comforting, historic, classic and kind of cool in a way. Thankfully over the last few years chefs like Fergus Henderson, Heston Blumenthal, Marco Pierre White, Jamie Oliver and many others are making it a point to celebrate the classic food of Britain. In some cases chefs like Blumenthal are digging very deep (I have a post about that coming up soon) into the roots of historic English foods and modernizing them. That’s exactly what Chef Blumenthal is doing at his restaurant Dinner in London.

This post is not about modernist takes on British food though. When I think of British food something like this delicious comforting beef and Guinness pie come to mind. There’s a whole slew of meat-in-pastry type pies in this cuisine that range anywhere from crayfish to steak and kidney. This particular recipe is from Jaime Oliver’s Great British Food. Oliver actually calls it “Will and Kate’s Steak and Guinness Pie” in honor of the royal wedding a few years back. He puts a few twists on the recipe like including barley and cheddar cheese in the filling. That was part of the reason why chose to give his version a shot.

Beef Shanks2 Beef Stew

The beef shanks from Yonder Way Farms are one fantastic cut of beef. I use them for everything from beef stew to beans and even Osso Buco. They are rich with a lot of flavor and lots of collagen that makes great braising liquids. More often than not, as I did here, I slip the marrow out of the bones and save it for another use. The filling of the pie is a stew with the beef, lots of red onions and some barley cooked in Guinness and beef stock.

Beef and Red Onions

When the stew is done I added in shredded sharp cheddar cheese. This touch is very nice. It makes a savory stew even more so, adds creaminess and substance. While the stew cooked and cooled I made the pastry.

The pastry is made very much like a pie or tart dough but instead of butter it uses suet. Suet is beef fat from around the kidneys. It is very firm and can actually be grated like butter or cheese. No one really sells suet in Houston and I did not want to pay for it online from some source (I might give that a shot at some point to see how different it is). What I do have is plenty of pork lard. So, the suet pastry became a rich pork lard short pastry. It was easy to work with and had a great flaky texture with a deep savory taste.

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To serve it, what better and more British side to go with this pie than steamed veg? The key here is to put the vegetables in the steamer based on how fast or slow they cook. I steamed carrots with some peas and some Romain lettuce at the end. These got tossed with a bit of butter, a drizzle of vinegar and salt. They were perfectly cooked with great texture and flavor, a perfect accompaniment to the rich beef and ale pie.

Cheers!

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