Real Homemade Popcorn & a Halloween Playlist

Popcorn, like Halloween, screams nostalgia to me. I have vivid memories of enjoying popcorn as a kid, at home and on Halloween, and we even had a woman in my small hometown who handed out homemade popcorn balls to trick-or-treaters and nobody had a problem with that. Ah, yesteryear.

Trick-or-treating, like everything else, has changed over the years and though it is still (apparently) popular with the kids, we don’t see a lot of action in our cul-de-sac. Last year, we had a 50% decrease in costumed-kid turnout, and that means the doorbell only rang twice rather than the usual three times. Who knows what this year will hold (especially with rain in our evening forecast), but at least we can enjoy our memories of Halloween from our own childhood, and I’ll figure out some way to use any candy we have left over.

We will be lucky to pass out half of this candy.

Throughout my childhood, there were many ways to make popcorn, including Jiffy Pop, which was first introduced in 1958 (when my parents were kids) and the best way to make it was over a campfire. It would sputter a bit at first as the oil inside the crumpled foil pan heated up, and then it would puff up into a giant ball that you had to have an adult tear open because the steam would burn your hands. It was crazy fun, and they still make Jiffy Pop today but it has largely been replaced by the convenience of microwave popcorn. When that trend became the norm for popcorn at home, I lost interest.

But popcorn started to have a new moment in my life almost a decade ago. I was living by myself with my three fur babies in a tiny, post-divorce apartment, and there were some nights that I didn’t feel like making a meal, so I’d settle onto the loveseat with my kitties and watch a movie with real, oil-popped popcorn and a glass of wine. Hey, there was nobody else around to complain or argue about it and, in an odd way, it was kind of liberating. When Covid hit two years ago and going to movie theaters was impossible, my husband and I started making more popcorn at home as we streamed movies on Netflix or Prime. Quite frankly, I don’t care at all about movie theater popcorn anymore because it pales in comparison to what we make at home.

The greatest benefit of making popcorn on the stove top is that you miss out on the chemical aftertaste and “after-feel” that the packaged microwave stuff always offers—you know, that chalky, filmy residue that lingers? There have been many red flags raised about the chemicals used in the microwave bags, and please raise your hand if you have ever had one catch fire in the microwave, or ever had to wave a wet towel in the air to stop the shrieking of your smoke alarm when the microwave popcorn got out of hand. Yeah, it’s everyone.


Making your own microwave popcorn may not be the best idea either, as some food safety experts have raised concern about heating brown paper bags (especially those which may include recycled materials) in the oven or microwave. So, from a safety standpoint, perhaps the old-fashioned method of popping it on the stove is still the best. It is certainly the tastiest.

Hot-air poppers were popular for a spell, but the popcorn is bland without some kind of oil and, given that we only make popcorn about five times a year, one of those bulky unitaskers doesn’t make a strong enough case to earn a coveted spot in my pantry.

Popcorn made on the stove is easy. Grab a lidded pot, at least as tall as it is wide, and preferably one with a heavy bottom to prevent scorching. It helps to have a pot with a vented—or even perforated—lid, if you can find one. Today, I use this pot that my husband loves for easy draining of pasta and potatoes. I like it for popcorn because the steam generated by the popping kernels has an easy way out of the pan and that keeps the popcorn nice and fluffy. You might also consider using a mesh spatter screen over a tall pot, and use a slightly smaller lid to keep it in place during popping so steam can escape but the hot kernels don’t.

I generally use peanut oil for popping, and I sometimes mix it up with a touch of extra virgin olive oil or unfiltered coconut oil. Do not try to make popcorn using only extra virgin olive oil, because its low smoke point practically guarantees you’ll have a mess on your hands, or maybe even a kitchen fire. Stick with oils intended for frying at higher temperatures, and you’ll be good. Heat the pot over medium to medium-high heat, and start with only two kernels to help you recognize the optimal heat level. As soon as those two kernels pop, add the rest of the popcorn all at once and give the pot a little shimmy-shake to settle them into one layer, all evenly coated in the sizzling oil.


Let the popping commence! When you notice that two or three seconds elapses between pops, immediately turn off the heat and transfer your popped corn into serving bowls. At our house, we dive right into one large bowl nestled between us, and it’s especially fun when we reach for it at the same time. If you like butter-topped popcorn—and let’s be honest, who doesn’t?—then you can melt a couple of tablespoons in a dish in the microwave or a separate pan while your popcorn is popping. I like to transfer only part of the popcorn at a time into my giant serving bowl and toss it with melted butter and salt or seasoning in batches.


As for the seasonings, think outside the salt shaker for a moment, and consider what else is in your spice cabinet that might be tasty on popcorn. If you are sodium-averse, consider chili powder or garlic powder as a seasoning, or try one of the Mrs. Dash blends to add a little zip to your popcorn. Use your imagination, and leave a comment with your favorite!

That’s a lot of popcorn possibilities!

I promised a playlist for Halloween, and you’re welcome to borrow it for your own spooky enjoyment as you wait for the doorbell to ring. I’ve curated this list to include a little bit of everything—from classic Halloween “standards” to all genres of songs about witches, monsters, creepy-crawlies and devils. It helps to have the Spotify app, but you don’t have to be a premium member to listen. Just click the play button and enjoy!

Real Homemade Popcorn

  • Servings: Varies by pot size
  • Difficulty: Average
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Why subject yourself to substandard microwave popcorn, when you can make it on the stove top in minutes and get creative with the seasonings? All you need is a tall, lidded pot and a light oil for popping.The amount of each ingredient depends on the size of your pot.


Ingredients

  • Neutral oil, such as vegetable, peanut or canola oil
  • Whole kernel popcorn
  • Melted butter and salt or seasonings of choice

Directions

  1. Place a heavy-bottomed, tall pot over medium heat and add enough oil to just cover the bottom. Drop two kernels of popcorn into the pot and cover it with a lid until they both pop.
  2. When both kernels have popped, carefully add enough popcorn to completely cover the bottom of the pot in a single, dense layer. Immediately replace the cover and wait for the popcorn to pop.
  3. Popcorn is finished when 2 to 3 seconds passes between pops. Immediately remove the pot from heat and carefully transfer it to a large serving bowl.
  4. Toss with melted butter and sprinkle with seasonings of your choice.

Look for salt specially formulated for popcorn, as its ultra-fine texture helps it adhere quickly to your just-popped popcorn. Also, consider various types of seasoned salt to add interest, such as Old Bay, seasoned salt, chili-lime salt, or everything bagel seasoning.


Sourdough Pumpkin Rye Sandwich Loaf

With the cool, crispness of fall in the air, I have been giving my stove and oven a serious workout. Many of my recipes have been reruns of things I’ve already posted, but I have made a few exciting new things, too.

Last week, I opened a can of pureed pumpkin for another recipe (I can’t remember what), and I had just a little bit leftover—at exactly the same time I needed to feed my sourdough starter to make a new loaf of bread for my husband’s lunchtime sandwiches. Why not add the pumpkin to a bread dough? My first inclination was to make a cinnamon roll-type thing, but I remembered how delicious pumpkin is without the spice and sugar, so I took it in this savory direction instead, using my favorite sourdough sandwich bread recipe as a template.

It even looks like autumn!

The go-to recipe I modified came from Maurizio Leo, a pro baker whose passion for naturally leavened bread shines on such sites as Food 52 and King Arthur Baking Company. He understands and explains all the science of breadmaking (which I love) and though I keep saying I want to make some of the other Insta-worthy recipes on his blog, The Perfect Loaf, I keep coming back to this one. It relies on an unusual method of pre-cooking a portion of the flour—a technique which locks in much more liquid that you’d otherwise get into a sandwich loaf—and this initial step ensures a super-soft, tender bread with a perfectly chewy edge on every slice.

I’ve experimented many times with Maurizio’s original recipe, first to split it in half because we can’t finish two loaves that quickly, partly out of necessity on days that I didn’t have honey or whole milk, but also out of curiosity to see how far I could push it in the direction of more whole grain. This time, I wanted to see how the loaf would fare with a half cup of fiber-rich pumpkin puree, and as you can see, it turned out quite good.

My big test for any new loaf is toast, and this one was divine!

I love toast so much.

To make my pumpkin sandwich bread even more rustic and autumn-like, I swapped out a good amount of my usual white whole wheat flour in favor of whole dark rye and played up that rye infusion with a spoonful of caraway seed. I swapped in molasses for honey because I love the deep, earthy flavor of molasses with rye. It all worked beautifully, and the aroma of this loaf as it emerged from the oven was nothing short of fantastic. Sometimes it pays to experiment.

Let’s get baking!

Inspired by Sourdough Sandwich Bread with Pre-cooked Flour | The Perfect Loaf

Fair warning, my recipe is written in metric measurement because that’s the way I bake. Scaling a recipe by volume measurements is a near-impossible task, and I will say honestly that my cheap digital kitchen scale is one of the items I would never go without today.

This loaf depends on a portion of ripe sourdough starter. “Ripe” means it has been refreshed within the past 8 to 12 hours, so it is fully fermented, active and ready to use. If you don’t have a sourdough starter, you could try a swap-in of canned pumpkin for about half of the water called for in your favorite yeast-based recipe, and then add about 2 tablespoons of extra water. It would be best to experiment with a recipe that you are very familiar with, so you have a better sense of when the dough looks and feels “right.”

Here’s how it went down in my kitchen, beginning with the flour and milk paste, which are whisked together and cooked over medium heat until it looks like a roux. This stage needs constant attention, so don’t look away even for a moment, and be ready to switch from whisk to spoon when it starts to get thickened so you don’t get it all caught up in the whisk.


Next, combine the pumpkin and warm water, whisk in the molasses and olive oil, and then combine it with the sourdough starter and the cooled roux paste in the bowl of a stand mixer. Use the beater blade for this and blend it for several minutes, until it’s smooth and evenly mixed.


Whisk the flours together—here I used a combination of dark rye, white whole wheat and bread flour, which is high in gluten for a strong rise—and stir in the salt and caraway seed. Add a spoonful of these dry ingredients at a time to the mixing bowl while it’s running, until the dough begins to look like batter. Then turn off the mixer and add the rest of the flour ingredients all at once. This is not an essential step for the recipe, but my technique for reducing the splash that usually happens when I start my mixer with wet and dry ingredients in the bowl. I hate the mess, and this really helps!


Continue mixing until all the dry ingredients are completely incorporated. Stop the mixer and scrape the dough off the beater blade into the bowl. Cover the bowl and let the dough rest for at least 20 minutes, up to an hour. This is a departure from Maurizio’s recipe; it’s my own trick for making the dough more workable, as the rest time gives the grain time to fully hydrate. Fit the mixer with the dough hook and knead the dough until it’s smooth, soft and shiny. Resist the temptation to add more flour—yes, the dough will seem too soft, but the next step of stretching and folding will increase its strength. Trust the process. Transfer the soft dough to a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover it and stay nearby for the next step.


I was working alone in the kitchen on this day, so the stretch and fold pictures I’m sharing below are borrowed from an earlier post for a different bread (notice the ugly old counters?), but the process is exactly the same. Do this at least twice (three is better), about 30 minutes apart during the first part of the ferment time. This may not seem like much, but this step builds a great deal of strength in the dough so it rises big in the oven.


After about three hours, the dough will be puffy and stretchy. Turn it out onto a lightly floured countertop and gently press and stretch it into a long rectangle. Beginning on the short end nearest you, roll it up tightly into a cylinder shape, tucking in the sides as you go. Pinch the ends of the roll closed and seal the long edge. Place the loaf, seam side-down, into a greased (or non-stick) bread pan. Cover with plastic wrap and place the pan in a draft-free zone in your kitchen—tucked into the microwave is a good bet—until the dough rises to one inch above the rim of the pan.


Preheat the oven to 400° F with rack in center position and another rack in the lowest part of the oven, which you’ll use for a steam pan. Fill a second, shallow baking pan with hot water and place the pan on the lowest rack while the oven preheats.

Bake 22 minutes with steam, then remove the steam pan and rotate the bread to bake more evenly. If the loaf is already brown on top, place a loose foil tent over it to prevent burning. Bake 22 minutes more, until bread is golden brown all over and internal temperature is around 205° F.


Turn the finished bread out onto a cooling rack immediately and cool at least four hours—preferably longer—before cutting into it. That is, if you can stand the wait. 😊

Sourdough Pumpkin Rye Sandwich Loaf

  • Servings: 16 slices
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
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This bread is rich with the rustic flavors of fall, and well worth the wait!


Ingredients

  • 148 g whole milk
  • 37 g whole dark rye flour
  • 106 g sourdough starter, recently refreshed
  • 100 g pureed pumpkin (NOT pie filling)
  • 85 g filtered water, heated 30 seconds in the microwave
  • 18 g unsulphured molasses
  • 30 g extra virgin olive oil
  • 285 g bread flour
  • 60 g white whole wheat flour
  • 28 g whole dark rye flour
  • 2 tsp. caraway seed (optional)
  • 1 1/4 tsp. salt

Directions

  1. Combine milk and first amount of rye flour together in a small saucepan. Whisk them together over medium-low heat until flour is thickened into a paste-like texture. This will take about 10 minutes. Let the mixture cool to room temperature.
  2. In a measuring cup with a pour spout, combine pumpkin, water, molasses and oil. Whisk until smooth. Combine this mixture with the sourdough starter and rye-milk paste, using the beater blade, until the mixture is evenly blended.
  3. Whisk remaining flour ingredients together with salt and caraway seed. Add flour ingredients and continue mixing with beater blade just until the mixture comes together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Scrape dough from blade, cover the bowl and let it rest at least 20 minutes, up to one hour.
  4. Attach the dough hook to the mixer and knead on medium-low speed for about 8 minutes, until dough is smooth and shiny. Transfer dough to a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover and rest for up to three hours. Perform a few stretch-and-folds during the first hour and a half. These folds will help build strength in the dough.
  5. When the dough has puffed considerably, shape it into a loaf and place it in a greased pan, seam side down. Cover and let rise for about two hours, until dough has risen about one inch above the rim of the pan.
  6. During the end of the rising time, preheat oven to 400 F with rack in center position and another rack near the bottom of the oven. Prepare a shallow pan with hot water and place it on the lower shelf during preheating time. This will provide steam for the first half of baking.
  7. Bake 22 minutes with steam, then carefully remove the steam pan. Rotate the bread pan and cover with a loose foil tent to prevent over browning. Continue to bake 22 more minutes, until bread is deep golden brown and internal temperature is in the 200-205 F range.
  8. Turn bread out immediately onto a cooling rack and cool completely before wrapping.


Whole Grain Soft Pitas

A commitment to healthier eating is kept with small, consistent adjustments. That probably sounds like a ridiculous statement coming from the cook who shared steak & potato pizza and decadent bananas Foster ice cream within the past few weeks, but I don’t necessarily mean just counting calories. I’m referring to more sweeping lifestyle changes that incorporate healthier choices and become the norm. Every time I have tried to “diet,” my plan falls apart, and I am quite accomplished at beating myself up under those circumstances. It is better, I have found, to find a few things that I can do without feeling cheated and simply apply those things across the board in my cooking repertoire. Eating healthier in general helps me feel better about the more luxurious things I enjoy in “moderation.”

For example, I hardly ever eat highly processed foods—including meat with nitrites and pantry items containing high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils. On the rare occasions that I do consume those things, it’s because I am ordering in a restaurant where the ingredients list is not easily reviewed. I ditched soft drinks a long time ago, and I make my own salad dressings most of the time, using vinegar or fruit juice, spices and extra virgin olive oil. We are diligent to seek out grass-fed beef (and we don’t eat nearly as much as we once did) and free-range chicken, and we are big supporters of the local butcher shop that carries responsibly raised pork.

The biggest change I’ve made over the past several years, though, is a shift toward whole grains in the baked goods I eat, and this got a lot easier when I started making my own bread at home. Not every recipe I make is 100% whole grain (including this one, which checks in at about 65%), but swapping white flour with some amount of whole wheat has been a smart decision that is easy to stick with. Nutrition experts rank whole grains more highly for two main reasons—the fiber they bring to a dish, and the complex carbohydrates that help keep our blood sugar levels regulated. 

If you bake at home, and you want to try shifting toward whole grain, I highly recommend picking up a bag of “white whole wheat” flour, made by King Arthur Baking Company. I am not a paid representative of this company (though my friends and family have said I should be, as much as I rave), but from one friend to another, I don’t mind telling you that this one product has changed the way I bake and eat, and I can hardly notice a difference in a typical recipe. Unlike some whole wheat flours, which are made from hard red wheat and carry a slight bitter flavor, King Arthur’s white whole wheat flour is produced from exactly that—hard white wheat—and it behaves and tastes almost exactly the same as an all-purpose flour. It can be swapped in 1:1 in most recipes for breads, pancakes, cookies and muffins. If you want to make a gradual switch, start by subbing about one-fourth of the total flour with the white whole wheat, then increase it to your liking as you go. Over time, you may find all-white breads to be flat and bland. That has certainly been the case at our house.

These whole grain goodies are terrific as sandwich wraps, and also great for cutting into wedges and dipping into fresh hummus!

For these soft wraps, I’ve taken a recipe that I posted in May 2020, when my blog was still in its infancy, and I’ve flipped the ratio of flours so that it uses twice as much white whole wheat as all-purpose flour. That earlier recipe for Soft Pita Breads is still great, and I’ve linked to it so you can check out the original. But this version, in all its whole grain glory, turned out so good with the falafel we made at home recently that it will become my go-to. What makes the pita breads so soft and bendy is an unusual technique of pre-cooking a portion of the flour before adding the rest of the ingredients. The pitas are “baked” on a griddle rather than in the oven, or you can use a dry cast-iron skillet if that’s what you have.

This recipe is easy even for beginning bakers, and unlike most of my bread-related shares, it does not depend on sourdough starter.

Enjoy!


Ingredients

2 cups white whole wheat flour* (see notes)

1 1/4 cups boiling water (plus up to 2 Tbsp. additional water)

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup dried potato flakes*

1 Tbsp. milled flax seed (optional, but so good for you)

1 1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. onion powder (optional)

1 tsp. instant yeast*

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil


*Notes

When measuring by volume, it’s important to fluff the flour first to avoid compacting it in the measuring cup. For best results, follow the fluff-sprinkle-level method.

Fellow label readers, you may find it difficult to find dried potato flakes that aren’t filled with dozens of unknown ingredients. Most “instant mashed potato” brands don’t make the cut in my recipes, but I have found two sources that are truly just potatoes, and that is the way to go. One is the 365 brand, available at Whole Foods and on Amazon, and the other is this one from Bob’s Red Mill. I promise, for my next batch, I will test a recipe that uses cooked potatoes.

Take note of what kind of yeast you have. Instant dry yeast is not the same as “active dry” yeast. The latter must be proved in warm water before using, whereas instant yeast can be added directly with the other dry ingredients. If you only have active dry yeast, try reserving 1/4 cup of the boiling water. Let it cool to bathwater temperature and dissolve the yeast in it for about 10 minutes. Add this mixture with the rest of the dry ingredients as directed in the recipe.


Instructions



Salmon with Warm Farro Salad

Comfort foods come in many shapes and sizes, though I usually think of them as rich, creamy sauces or over-the-top pizzas or decadent ice creams. But this entrée, despite being inherently light and healthful, is also very comforting, thanks to the variety of textures and flavors in the mix.

I designed this pretty plate from memory after a brunch with co-workers during the holiday season. It was the farro salad and roasted root vegetables that caught my eye on the menu that day. I loved the tender chew of the farro and the warmth and earthiness given by the sweet potatoes and parsnips. If you are not familiar with farro, please allow me to introduce you.

handful of quick cooking farro
Italian farro, par-cooked to be ready in just 10 minutes! Use farro any way that you would use wheat berries, barley or brown rice.

What is farro?

Farro is an ancient grain that is native to Italy. It is perhaps better described as a category of grain, given that three distinct varieties—spelt, einkorn and emmer—are frequently described as “farro.” In its most basic state, farro is a hard kernel that can either be cooked whole in water or ground into meal or flour. But it may also be partially or fully pearled, meaning that some or all of the bran has been removed. The pearling process results in altered cooking time, but the grain would still be suitable for the same kinds of dishes.

What does farro taste like?

When cooked as a whole grain, farro has a warm, nutty flavor that is similar to that of brown rice. Unlike most conventional wheat grains, farro has not been greatly hybridized from its ancient state, and some people find it more easily digestible for that reason. But as a botanical relative of wheat, farro does contain gluten and should be avoided by people with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.

How do you cook farro?

To cook partially pearled farro (the most common form you’ll find in stores), give it a rinse under running water and inspect the grains to weed out any small debris that may have missed screening during packaging. Add the farro to double the amount of water and heat until boiling, then reduce heat and simmer about 20 to 25 minutes for al dente, or longer if you want it more tender. Farro that has not been pearled may take twice as long, and some packaged farro is par-cooked for quicker preparation, so always check the label instructions for recommended cooking time.

What can you use farro for?

Farro is a versatile grain that can be used in pilafs, salads or soups. If ground into flour, it can be used in baking recipes, though the resulting texture would be more dense than baked goods made with typical wheat. If you want to try farro flour in a favorite bread recipe, consider substituting only about one-fourth of the total amount of flour, and increase the amount the next time when you better understand its properties.


salmon with warm farro salad - comfortdujour.com
There is a lot of lovely contrast amid all these ingredients. I especially like the feta crumbles!

The rest of this recipe is straightforward and simple—the sweet potatoes and parsnips are tossed lightly in olive oil and roasted until tender and browned, and the salmon is lightly seared in a skillet with nothing more than salt and pepper. A quick vinaigrette of lemon, garlic and oregano ties the whole dish together with a fat handful of peppery arugula greens.


Ingredients

1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into large chunks

2 parsnips, peeled and cut into large chunks

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup sliced fresh leeks (or chopped sweet onion)

1 cup cooked farro* (see recipe notes)

A fat handful fresh baby arugula leaves, washed

Garlic-oregano vinaigrette*

2 fillets fresh salmon, skin removed

1/4 cup crumbled feta (or goat cheese)


*Recipe Notes

As noted above, some farro products have been par-cooked for convenience. Follow the instructions on your package to cook the farro to “al dente” stage, so that it is soft but still has a bit of chew to it.

Vinaigrette is one of the simplest salad dressings to make at home. I usually make it in a glass measuring cup for easy pouring, but if you want to make it even easier, put all the ingredients into a small jar with a lid and shake the dickens out of it. My recipe for this vinaigrette is included in the downloadable PDF at the end of this post. You’ll need a light vinegar, Dijon, fresh garlic, oregano and lemon, and extra virgin olive oil.


Instructions

Follow along as I show you how I made this tasty, healthful comfort food. Scroll to the bottom for a downloadable version you can print for your recipe files.



Sourdough Pumpernickel

We have entered the last full week of March, and I’ve yet to mention that it is “National Flour Month,” a near-unforgivable oversight for someone who enjoys making homemade bread as much as I do. My adventures with sourdough have been well-documented here on Comfort du Jour, but it took St. Patrick’s Day to bring me back around to making our favorite sourdough pumpernickel. It had to be done, given the volume of homemade corned beef we have (not to mention all that pastrami), and the rising aroma of this bread from the oven was enough on its own to convince me I’d waited too long.

What makes this bread extra special for me is that I make my own flour for it, from freshly milled rye grain. This sounds more impressive than it really is, thanks to a handy grain mill that latches onto my KitchenAid stand mixer. I just turn the dial to select the grind, pour in the grain and turn it on. I purchased the mill in the summer of 2016, when “Pete,” my sourdough starter, was still wet behind the ears, and I’ve found it particularly useful for some of my lesser-used grains, including rye. After whole grain has been milled into flour, the freshness clock starts ticking, and there is nothing tasty about rancid flour. Now, when I want to make rye bread (or pumpernickel, which is technically almost the same), I mill the grain fresh, but only the amount I need, and I’m good to go with flour that far excels what I could have bought pre-milled.

Milling the grain myself allows me to grind only the amount I need, so my whole grain stays fresh longer.

This recipe relies on sourdough for rise and flavor, though there is also a small (optional) amount of instant dry yeast to boost the rising power and make the ferment time more predictable. As with many other sourdough loaves, this one begins the day before with a pre-ferment called a “sponge,” and that’s when the freshly milled rye flour starts working its magic. The rest of the flour is high-protein bread flour, which is needed for its strength because rye does not have a lot of gluten.

Coarse-milled whole rye grain is known as pumpernickel meal, and it may surprise you to know that the dark, rich color of “pumpernickel” bread is mostly for show, and it comes into the bread by way of either caramel color (which isn’t likely in your pantry), strong coffee (either liquid or powdered) or—as is the case with mine—cocoa powder! And no, it does not make the bread taste like chocolate. There’s also an unusual, time-honored technique that will come into play with this bread, and it involves bread from another time (more on that in a minute).

Up to this point, the sourdough pumpernickel recipe I’m describing has been drawn straight from p. 246 of Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, the same book I depended on to learn sourdough baking in the first place. But something in my nature will not let me leave well enough alone, and I have put my own spin on this recipe—not because I think I know better than the author, but because I love certain additional flavors in my rye breads, and so I have either substituted or added ingredients, following rules that Reinhart himself would approve. Rather than brown sugar, I add molasses for a deep, earthy sweetness, and I accent this bread with onions, dill and caraway seeds, none of which are called for in the original recipe.

The resulting bread never ceases to thrill my taste buds, and it has been terrific this past week with our homemade corned beef, but I confess my favorite way to enjoy it is the same as most every bread—it makes fabulous toast!

Just give me this, every day for the rest of my life, please!

Ingredients

On Day 1:

7 oz. ripe (recently fed) sourdough starter

4.25 oz. coarse whole grain rye flour* (see notes)

6 oz. water, room temperature

Combine the starter, coarse rye flour and water in a medium bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let it ferment at room temperature about 5 hours, until it looks very bubbly and active. Transfer the sponge to the refrigerator overnight.

On Day 2:

2 Tbsp. molasses

2 oz. water, room temperature

2 Tbsp. olive oil (mine is infused with dill)

1 heaping Tbsp. minced dried onion, rehydrated with warm water

9 oz. bread flour*

1 Tbsp. cocoa powder* (optional, see notes)

1 tsp. instant dry yeast*

1 1/2 tsp. fine-textured salt

1 Tbsp. caraway seed, plus a few sprinkles for topping* (optional)

Up to a cup of dry bread crumbs from a previous rye loaf* (optional)

1 or 2 tsp. dried dill leaves (optional)

Egg wash for topping and cornmeal for baking

*Notes

If you don’t have a grain mill, it’s no problem. Use whole rye flour, which is available in specialty markets such as Whole Foods. The pre-milled flour and resulting bread will have a finer texture, but all the flavors will still be present.

I mentioned above that strong coffee is sometimes used to give deep color to pumpernickel, but for this recipe, I would not recommend using brewed coffee in the overnight sponge. Espresso powder or a fine-textured instant coffee mixed with the flour would be a better bet if coffee is your coloring agent of choice.

Caraway seeds give a distinct note to rye or pumpernickel bread, but it is a polarizing flavor for some people. When someone tells me they don’t like rye bread, I usually assume it is the caraway. It is a warm, slightly biting flavor, and I love it, so I put it in the dough and also on top of the bread.

The addition of the “old” bread crumbs is optional, but it adds an interesting texture and depth of flavor to the finished bread. In a way, the secondary crumbs are another type of sourdough, given that the flavor and existing yeast in them contribute something to the final product. If you choose to try this, I would recommend using crumbs from a home-baked bread, and preferably sourdough, to exclude unnecessary commercial preservatives and such.


Instructions


  1. The day before you intend to make this sourdough pumpernickel, you will need to feed your starter with the entire amount of coarse, whole grain rye flour and water to make it a soupy mixture. Cover it with plastic wrap and give it a few hours at room temperature until it becomes foamy and bubbly, then put it to bed in the fridge until morning.
  2. Remove the sponge from the fridge for about an hour to knock the chill off it. Pour a small amount of boiling water over the dried chopped onions to re-hydrate them.
  3. In the mixing bowl of a stand mixer, combine the bread flour, cocoa, salt, instant dry yeast and caraway seed. If using the “old bread” technique, also add the crumbs to the flour blend.
  4. Stir water, molasses and oil into the fermented sponge.
  5. Combine the sponge mixture and re-hydrated onions with the dry ingredients and mix with a beater blade until dough becomes a cohesive mass around the beater. Scrape down dough, cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a slightly damp towel and rest 30 minutes.
  6. Switch to the dough hook and knead in the stand mixer about 5 minutes. The dough will be dense and sticky, but resist the temptation to add more flour or you will end up with a gummy bread.
  7. Shape dough into a smooth ball and place it in a large, oiled bowl. Cover and rest in a quiet, warm spot of the kitchen until dough has doubled in size, which may be anywhere from 2 to 3 hours, depending on ambient room temperature.
  8. Grease a 9-inch loaf pan and sprinkle corn meal into the pan, tapping to distribute it evenly in the pan.
  9. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured counter, pressing and stretching the dough into an oblong shape, about 8 inches wide and 16 inches long. Sprinkle the dried dill onto the dough, then roll it up into a loaf shape to match the length of your bread pan. The loaf will rise more evenly if the ends of the dough meet the ends of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap or an elastic cover and let the bread proof 60 to 90 minutes, until dough has risen to about an inch above the rim of the pan.
  10. Near the end of the proofing time, preheat the oven to 350° F, with rack in the center.
  11. Brush the surface of the bread with egg wash and sprinkle it with additional caraway seeds.
  12. Bake for 45 minutes, turning bread halfway through baking time. Internal temperature should be about 190° F and the bread should sound hollow when thumped on the bottom.
  13. Turn bread out onto a cooling rack, and cool completely before slicing.

No, this pretty girl is not asking for pumpernickel. She can smell butter from 100 miles away!

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Welcome Autumn Whole Grain and Bean Soup

Today is the first official day of autumn, and I’m so ready for it this year. Six months ago, it seemed as if time was standing still, as the pandemic threw us into uncharted territory and isolation with very little warning. The world became so weird, and it felt like the days dragged on. Now, we are in the opposite place—or back to normal, you might say—in that the days are moving very quickly once again. I think it’s because we’ve had little choice but to normalize what is happening around our world, and with the new precautions for safety and distancing becoming second nature, time is getting back on track—at least as much as possible.

My favorite part of fall and “cooler weather” is that I’ll soon unpack all my sweaters and leggings and boots, and I can finally put my kitchen focus on my favorite foods, like this autumn soup. Oh, yum!

It’s everything I love about fall, all in one beautiful bowl.

Though I’ve paid a lot of attention so far this month to breakfast (it being “better breakfast month” and all), it bears repeating that September is also designated as “whole grains” month and “mushroom” month. I don’t know who decides these things, but I’m happy to play along by offering up one of my own favorite recipes that incorporates both whole grains and mushrooms, and plenty more hearty satisfaction as well.

The main ingredient for this soup is a dried whole grain and beans soup mix from Bob’s Red Mill, and I cannot tell you how excited I am to see it back on their website. I first discovered this product while browsing through Big Lots discount store, and I felt pangs of sadness when it disappeared from store shelves and Bob’s website a year or so ago. But it’s back online, and I just hit the “buy it” button for two more packages. I love this wholesome blend because it has so much going on in terms of flavor and nutrition. Check out the ingredients list: small red beans, pinto beans, lentils, whole oat groats, brown rice, triticale berries, rye berries, hard red wheat, pearl barley, Kamut Khorasan wheat, buckwheat groats and sesame seeds. That’s a whole lot of hearty going on! It’s simple to cook, with a quick rinse and then bring to a boil and simmer with broth or water. It would be delicious and satisfying on its own, but for my “welcome autumn” soup, I’ve added browned ground turkey, onions, garlic, roasted butternut squash, mushrooms and vegetable broth. It all cooks up into the heartiest autumn weather dinner in a bowl.

It would be so, so easy to make this dish vegan, too. Simply omit the turkey and use vegetable broth and bouillon. You’d never miss the meat.

The comforting nature of this soup is exactly the right way to usher in my very favorite season. You might even say it’s a Sunday Supper kind of meal, given that it builds flavor over a few hours and has a good many ingredients (though all are simple). I make this soup on the stove top, but the recipe is perfectly adaptable to a slow cooker. Begin with cooking the grains and beans on low setting for a few hours, then add the other cooked ingredients and simmer on low another hour or two. However you make it , the leftovers will leave you as satisfied as the original bowlful, and if you happen to have some crusty dinner rolls or baguette slices on the side—well, even better. This recipe will make approximately 8 servings.

Ingredients

2 cups Bob’s Red Mill “whole grain and beans” soup mix

2 cartons (8 cups) vegetable or chicken broth*

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 lb. ground turkey (omit for vegan)

1 medium onion, chopped

3 ribs celery, strings removed and chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 cup sun dried tomato, cut into small pieces

1 tsp. poultry seasoning (or 1/4 tsp. each ground sage, thyme, onion powder, celery seed)

1 small butternut squash, cubed into 1” pieces

8 oz. package cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced*

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 Tbsp. low-sodium vegetable or chicken bouillon base*

*Notes

Broths are not all created equal, and my recommendation is to be attentive to the sodium content in the broth you choose. Some brands labeled “low-sodium” contain around 570 mg per serving, and others are only around 120 mg. As a rule, I select the lowest sodium broths, as it gives me more control over the final outcome of a recipe. You can always add salt, but you cannot take it away. For this soup, I used vegetable broth, and added richness with the chicken bouillon base.

Cremini mushrooms are my go-to for most recipes, but white or shiitake mushrooms would also be terrific in this recipe.

The bouillon is optional, but I love the extra richness it adds to this soup. I use the Better than Bouillon brand, but it isn’t always easy to find in “reduced sodium” version. I’m thankful that Costco carries it, but you can also buy it online or use another bouillon base. Again, noting the sodium content will help you achieve good results.

A spoonful of this adds incredible depth to my soup.

Instructions

  1. Use a fine mesh strainer to rinse both cups of grain and bean mix.
  2. Add soup mix and 2 cartons of broth to a large stock pot. Bring to boil momentarily, then reduce heat, cover and simmer until beans are tender (approximately 2 hours).
  3. Heat oven to 400° F. Drizzle olive oil on butternut squash cubes, season with salt and pepper, and roast about 30 minutes, or until just fork tender.
  4. In a skillet over medium heat, swirl in olive oil and cook ground turkey until browned, about 5 minutes. Add onions, garlic, celery and sun-dried tomato bits and cook 3 more minutes. Season with salt, pepper and poultry seasoning.
  5. Add browned turkey mixture to the bean soup and stir to combine.
  6. In the same skillet used to brown turkey, add another tablespoon of olive oil and saute mushrooms until just lightly browned. Avoid crowding the pan, or mushrooms will steam rather than brown. You may need to do them in two batches.
  7. When mushrooms are browned, add them to the soup.
  8. Add roasted squash to the soup and stir to combine.
  9. For an extra boost of flavor and richness, stir in a tablespoon of bouillon base, straight from the jar. Alternatively, add two bouillon cubes, and perhaps dissolve them in a very small amount of boiling water to keep the flavor concentrated.
  10. Allow the soup to simmer for a few hours. Enjoy on its own, or with a crusty dinner roll or baguette slices.

Nourishment, flavor, comfort–it’s all in there!

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Whole Grain Banana Pancakes

Your weekend deserves these soft, sweet pancakes. They are packed with whole grain goodness, a serving of fresh fruit and real cultured buttermilk for richness without extra fat. We are making breakfast better this month, and these sweet stacks are bringing all the comfort without so much guilt.

My pancake recipe is inspired by King Arthur Baking Company’s buttermilk pancakes, and they are terrific as written, but I’ve dressed them up with fresh banana, and made a few ingredient swaps to pull it further into the “healthy” column—whole wheat pastry flour delivers fiber and complex carbs, coconut sugar lends rich flavor and easier impact on blood sugar, and an addition of unsweetened coconut and toasted pecans for texture and crunch that makes these so satisfying.

Small bits of banana and pecan in every delicious, mouthwatering bite!

Last weekend, my husband, Les, and I enjoyed these whole grain banana pancakes with crisp butcher shop bacon and real maple syrup from Western New York, where the autumn colors are more beautiful than any other place I’ve been. Sure, I can go anyplace (even Walmart) to purchase maple syrup, but I grew up beneath the brilliance of the maple trees of Upstate New York, and I am especially comforted to dress my pancakes in syrup made near my childhood home. As we head into fall, I expect maple will pop up many times in the recipes I will share with you.

Some of the ingredients listed may be new or intimidating to you, but not to worry—the original King Arthur recipe is excellent, or use any pancake mix you like and add the banana and other flavors to customize them. All the same, I’ll share some background notes about the special ingredients in case you want to try these items.

What is pastry flour and how is it different from regular flour?

Flour that is labeled as “pastry flour” is lower in protein content than all-purpose flour. In simple terms, it means that the flour is not as strong as you would want for making yeast-risen bread. Pastry flour is softer, which makes it ideal for making cookies, quick breads, pancakes and muffins. For this pancake recipe, I’ve recommended whole wheat pastry flour, available in larger supermarkets or online from Bob’s Red Mill. The softness makes it a good bet for pancakes and the whole grain gives a big nutrition boost.

What is coconut sugar?

Coconut sugar is produced when the moisture is evaporated off the sap of a coconut palm tree. You can substitute it 1:1 for regular sugar in nearly any recipe. It looks similar to brown sugar, but it has a drier, less sticky texture. Coconut sugar still has a fair amount of calories, but it also has iron, zinc and potassium—though for the small amount of sugar used in a baking recipe, the health benefits are negligible. There is some evidence that coconut sugar doesn’t spike your blood sugar as intensely as refined cane sugar. Beyond the potential “good for you” notes, I like it for the richness of flavor, especially in baked goods, and I’ve chosen it for these pancakes because it tastes great with banana.

What is dessicated coconut?

I wish they had a better word because “dessicated” sounds so harsh, doesn’t it? The main difference with this kind of coconut is that it is a drier and finer shred than typical “baker’s” coconut, and the brand I buy (Bob’s Red Mill) is also unsweetened. If you dislike the texture or cloying sweetness of typical coconut, but enjoy the flavor, this would be a good option. In these banana pancakes, I love the delicately flaky texture it adds to the tender pancakes, as well as the pairing of tropical flavor to the bananas.

Can I swap another milk for buttermilk?

In some recipes, regular or dairy-free milk may be substituted 1:1 for buttermilk. But in this instance, the acidity of the buttermilk is meant to balance the alkaline nature of the baking soda, to create a lighter, fluffier pancake. If you don’t have buttermilk on hand, or if you have issues with dairy in general, substitute another type of milk (2%, almond, etc.) and add a tablespoon of lemon juice or white vinegar. Allow the mixture to rest 15 minutes before using, and you will get similar results.

What can I use in place of bananas in these pancakes?

If you are not bananas for bananas, you can still enjoy the benefit of whole fruit by substituting berries or another fruit with similar moisture makeup. I would not recommend very wet fruit such as melon, citrus or kiwi in pancakes, but any kind of fresh berry can be added to pancake batter. I have also had great success making apple cinnamon pancakes, using small cut up bits of fresh firm apples. If you try this, I’d recommend increasing the cinnamon in the dry ingredient mix, and sprinkle the apple bits atop the pancake before turning it, rather than adding the apple to the batter.

Ready to make them?

This recipe made six 4 1/2″ pancakes, plus two miniature pancakes for my taste tester. Feel free to put on Jack Johnson as you make them. 🙂

This song is perfect for a laid-back, “hanging out with your baby and making banana pancakes” weekend.

Ingredients

3/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour* (see notes above)

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

2 Tbsp. coconut sugar*

1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/4 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 cup low-fat cultured buttermilk*

1 Tbsp. canola oil

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 medium firm, ripe banana, cut into bite-sized pieces

1/4 cup chopped toasted pecans, optional

2 Tbsp. unsweetened dessicated coconut, optional*

Butter and maple syrup for serving


Instructions

First, the visual, and written instructions listed after, along with a downloadable PDF copy for your recipe book!

  1. Whisk together dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl and set aside.
  2. Combine egg, buttermilk, oil and vanilla, and whisk until evenly blended.
  3. Pour wet mixture into the bowl of dry ingredients and stir only until flour is completely mixed in. It’s OK to see a few small lumps. Set this aside to rest for 15 minutes while you preheat the griddle or pan to 350° F (medium setting on stovetop).
  4. After rest time, fold pecans, banana bits and coconut (if using) into the batter mixture. Be as gentle as you can, to keep an “airy” texture to the batter.
  5. When skillet is pre-heated (water beads will “dance” on it), spoon or ladle out the batter in 1/4 cup amounts. Cook until large bubbles appear on top and edges of pancake appear set. Turn gently to cook the other side.
  6. Keep pancakes warm on a platter until all are cooked. Serve with butter and maple syrup.
  7. Spoil the dog. ❤

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Healthy Wheat Berry Salad

This probably should have been one of the first recipes I shared on Comfort du Jour. It’s been in my rotation of favorite simple sides for years, ever since I first discovered wheat berries in the bulk section at Whole Foods. If you’ve never had wheat berries (or maybe never even heard of them), let me introduce you to these versatile little gems.

What are wheat berries?

First of all, they aren’t really berries—at least not the way you’d think of fruit. Wheat berries are the individual dried grains of whole wheat. In their dried state, each grain is about the size of a fat grain of rice. When cooked, they plump up to triple in size.

Clockwise, from top right: hard red winter wheat, spelt, rye and farro.

Where can you buy wheat berries?

Most natural foods stores and larger supermarkets with a bulk section are likely to stock varieties of whole grains, including wheat berries, oat groats, barley, and sometimes even rye, spelt or farro. You can also generally find them online from Bob’s Red Mill, though they’ve been in short supply during the pandemic. For this recipe, I’ve used Kamut, which is considered an ancient variety of wheat grain. I prefer it because it’s organically grown and hasn’t been hybridized and modified as conventional wheat has; it’s pretty much the same as it was thousands of years ago. Kamut is technically a brand name for the wheat variety Khorasan, native to Egypt and grown in abundance today in Montana and western parts of Canada. My aunt lives in Montana, and she sent the Kamut berries to me from her favorite natural foods market.

Kamut is a longer grain because it has not been hybridized for quicker harvest.

How do you cook wheat berries?

It’s a similar process to cooking beans from dried. Wheat berries are a natural product, so they need to be sorted and rinsed before cooking, in case of random small stones or other debris. After rinsing, combine them with water (at least 2:1 ratio) in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until the wheat berries are tender (about an hour), then drain and proceed with your favorite recipe. To use them in a cold dish, cool and refrigerate first.

What can you do with wheat berries?

Pretty much anything you can do with rice, you can do with wheat berries. They have a pleasant chewy texture, like al dente pasta, so they work really well in a main dish such as chili, soup or salad. If you’re into making homemade bread, knead about 1/2 cup of cooked wheat berries into the final dough to add more whole grain goodness. Of course, because they are wheat in whole grain state, you can also mill dried wheat berries into flour, if you happen to have the right equipment to do so. I’ve read recently that Kamut flour makes exceptional pasta, so I’m putting that on my culinary bucket list.

What do wheat berries taste like?

Wheat berries have a mild, almost nutty flavor that is similar to brown rice. Because they are neither sweet nor savory, you can take them in either direction, depending on what you add to them. Besides the chilies, soups and salads I’ve already mentioned, you could also easily toss them on top of Greek yogurt with fresh berries and cinnamon and just call it breakfast.

Now that you’re well acquainted with wheat berries, let’s talk about this salad!

How can something so good be so simple?

We’ve been eating entirely too many rich, heavy foods at our house lately. It’s interesting to me that most of the foods we think of as “comfort foods” are completely on the wrong side of healthy. Foods with simple starches, sugars and fats in abundance are usually what we reach for when we are under stress or facing uncertainty, so it’s not surprising, and maybe you’ve experienced the same.

Allow this salad to bring you back to a healthy place of comfort, with crunch, chew and fresh flavors, dressed in a light, Greek-inspired vinaigrette that’s easy to make from stuff you probably already have in the spice rack and the door of the fridge. Seriously, learn to make your own dressings and you’ll never buy it in the stores again.

We served this on a bed of baby spinach as a fresh, cool side to the meatless moussaka we had for a recent family dinner. If you can’t get your hands on wheat berries right away, any small size whole grain pasta would make an excellent stand in.

Ingredients

2 to 3 cups cooked wheat berries (or other whole grain)

1 can garbanzo beans (drained)

1/2 medium red onion, chopped

1 Persian cucumber*, trimmed and sliced

About 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, halved

1/3 cup pitted Kalamata olives, rough chopped

1/4 cup pepperoncini, chopped (optional)

chopped fresh parsley or dill for serving (optional)

Dressing

2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

1 Tbsp. Sicilian lemon white balsamic vinegar*

1 tsp. garlic pepper seasoning* (see notes)

1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil*

1 Tbsp. cold water

*Notes

Any kind of cucumber works here; I like the Persians for their compact size and minimal seeds. You want about 1 cup of cucumber slices or chunks. I’ve used my handy garnishing tool to strip part of the peel away, leaving a little bit for texture and the little bit of bitterness it adds to the salad. You could do the same with a small, sharp paring knife—or just peel the whole thing.

The lemon balsamic vinegar is a specialty item, purchased from one of the gourmet oil and vinegar shops that seem to have popped up everywhere. If you can’t find it, no problem—substitute a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a pinch of sugar.

Check your garlic pepper ingredients (or taste it) to see how much salt is in it. If you have a salt-free version such as Mrs. Dash, you’ll also want to add a couple pinches of salt to the dressing. We have McCormick brand, and the salt level is just about right. Lemon pepper seasoning would also be terrific.

There are so many choices for olive oil at most markets. This is a good recipe to bring out the “good stuff.” I generally use a more neutral flavor of olive oil (but still extra virgin) for everyday cooking and sautéing, but for a fresh dressing, I reach for the more pungent “grassy” varieties. If it has a little bit of bite or bitterness on the back end, it means it’s high in polyphenols—the stuff that makes it so good for you!

There’s no substitute for a good quality, REAL extra virgin olive oil.

The salad will come together on its own—you don’t need my help combining these simple, fresh ingredients. But if you’ve never made your own vinaigrette, it’s time you learn this simple and valuable trick. It takes less than a minute, and you don’t need any special tools or bottles. I usually make a vinaigrette in my glass measuring cup, just before I assemble my salad. For this one, work ahead a little bit so the dried oregano has time to soften and rehydrate.

Combine the vinegar and lemon white balsamic (or lemon juice and sugar), garlic pepper and dried oregano. Then drizzle the olive oil into the mixture in a slow, steady stream, while whisking constantly. This will help the oil and vinegar come together without separation. If you prefer, combine all the ingredients together in a covered jar and shake the dickens out of it. Allow the dressing to rest in the refrigerator for about an hour, then whisk or shake again and pour over the salad mixture and toss gently to combine.

The salad can be made ahead and it keeps in the fridge for several days. Fold it gently to redistribute the dressing just before serving, and sprinkle with fresh parsley or dill for an extra pop of color and flavor.

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