Friday, July 26, 2013

Honey Whole-Wheat Challah Bread . . . with Dried Cherries

Whoa . . . can't quite believe it's been so long since I last posted. I think I've set a Jane's Sweets non-attendance record. Where have I been? Well, I can tell you I wasn't circumnavigating the globe in a sailboat. And I haven't been languishing in suspended animation in a hospital bed. Nor have I been hard at work on a cookbook destined to take the pastry world by storm, and I most certainly have not just had a baby. Nothing as remarkable as all that.

To be perfectly honest with you, I needed a little break. One that did not involve a laser focus on baking fantastic treats. I've been working, you see, on shrinking off a few pounds and it seemed expedient to lay off the homemade delicacies in order to help facilitate that thorny effort. You might say I temporarily pulled my own baking plug. And joined Weight Watchers in the process.

I mean, let's face it . . . I'm essentially a junkie when confronted with high-quality confections, especially those of my own creation. (Yeah, yeah, I know. A stunning revelation. You never could have guessed that, right?) I realized it was truly necessary for me, literally and figuratively, to back away from the dessert cart for a while in order to regroup. At least I can report that, in this semi-unplugged interim, I've made some meaningful shrinkage progress. Nothing dramatic or jarringly obvious, mind you, but all such progress is relative if you inherited chubby genes like mine.

So, anyway, a couple pounds off here, a couple pounds off there, and it all adds up. More exercise, less sugar and butter, way more veggies. It's a happy development. Progress, at this point, is admittedly slower than molasses, but that's okay. I can live with that. Slow and steady wins the race . . . right? 

What does this mean for me and my beloved blog? It just means I'm baking more selectively, for now at least. And if I do bake something luscious, I need to be darn sure that leftovers won't stick around here to tempt me. Earlier this week, for example, I had to make this big birthday cake for my younger son, who just turned 17. It's a chocolate extravaganza of a cake, and he's requested it every year for his birthday since 2010. Naturally, I was concerned at the idea of it lingering around here; lock me and a chocolate cake in a house together for a few days and the cake doesn't stand a chance. So, after his small celebration here at home on Tuesday night, about three-quarters of the cake remained. I put it in a cake-keeper, relegated it to the basement fridge, and repeatedly encouraged him to take the whole kit 'n' kaboodle away to share with his pals. Wednesday night, thank heaven, that's what he did. Problem solved.

About this recipe . . . 

All that said, I just wanted to share this bread with you while it's still fresh, both in my mind and on my kitchen counter. Adapted from a formula in Simply Great Breads, by bread master Daniel Leader (I love this little book), this is a great variation on traditional challah, with a lovely crust and appealing crumb. Wonderful flavor, too. And it's not something that will completely destroy one's diet, if partaken of judiciously.

What did I change? Well, the original recipe included olive oil and, while I do periodically use olive oil in bread, I didn't want it to compete with the other flavors in this loaf so I substituted the more neutral-tasting canola oil. Also, I fiddled with the flours a bit (Leader uses whole wheat flour and all-purpose; I used mostly whole wheat, then a combo of bread flour and all-purpose). I reduced the amount of honey slightly, and I used chopped dried cherries instead of dried apricots, though I think either one would be tasty. And, of course, I reworded the recipe to reflect exactly what I did. This is a very simple loaf to put together, with a pleasingly soft and pliant dough that's not too sticky to work with easily.

The bread is yummy, even unbuttered. I haven't tried it toasted yet but I'm sure it's divine. Maybe a nice, thin, toasted slice tomorrow morning will be called for.

Honey Whole-Wheat Challah Bread with Dried Cherries

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Yield: One large braided loaf, or two smaller standard size loaves baked in 9"x5" pans

2 cups whole wheat flour (about 8.5 oz)
1 cup bread flour
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 and 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
1 and 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt or kosher salt
3/4 cup luke warm water
2 large eggs, room temperature and lightly beaten
1/2 cup canola oil
3 tablespoons of honey
1/4 cup of well-chopped dried cherries

For egg wash: 1 large egg, lightly beaten with two teaspoons water (to brush on the unbaked loaf before putting it in the oven)

* * * * *

In the large bowl from your mixer, lightly whisk together the three flours, the yeast, and the salt. Into that, pour the water, eggs, oil, and honey. Using a spatula, stir this up by hand for a few seconds. Now put the bowl back on the mixer and, using the dough hook, mix the dough for about five minutes on the lowest speed, sprinkling in the chopped cherries after about two minutes of mixing. Take the bowl off the mixer and dump the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Flour your hands and finish the kneading by hand, for a couple more minutes, until the dough feels soft, smooth, and spongy. It should be tacky but not wet/sticky.

Put the dough into a large, clean bowl that's been oiled/sprayed. Cover it with plastic wrap that's also been oiled/sprayed, and let the dough rise at room temperature for about 90 minutes or up to 2 hours, until it's obviously doubled in size.

On a very lightly floured work surface, dump out the risen dough and deflate it by pressing on it with your palms. Divide the dough into three equal parts (I suggest weighing the dough first; my ball of dough weighed about 35 oz. total, so each of the three dough chunks for the braids weighed a little over 11 oz.). Roll each piece into a rope that's 15 inches long; be assertive and don't worry if the dough tries to shrink back a little as you're doing this.

On a large baking sheet, spread a sheet of parchment paper. Place the three ropes of dough in the middle of the parchment, right next to each other, and pinch the ends together tightly at the top. Proceed to braid the dough snugly (starting from the top with the right braid over the middle braid, then the left one over the center, etc.) until you reach the bottom end; tightly pinch the bottom ends together and tuck the pinched part underneath.

Dust the top of the braided dough with a pinch of flour (the bread flour or all-purpose flour) and cover it with a clean piece of plastic wrap. Let it proof for up to 2 hours, until it looks almost doubled in size. While its proofing, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Just before the bread is ready to bake, whisk together the egg and water to make a wash; brush some of the egg wash generously onto the top of the loaf and lightly down the sides.

Bake the bread for up to about 40 minutes, until the internal temperature reaches 200 degrees (use an instant-read thermometer to check if you're not sure), and the color is deeply golden all over. Let the baked bread cool on a rack for a while before slicing.

*If you're baking your bread as two unbraided loaves in standard size (greased) loaf pans, I'd suggest checking them after about 20 minutes in the oven.

(If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, please click on the purple COMMENTS below.)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Out with the Old Mixer and In with the New . . . (Yukon Gold Potato Bread)

Boy, talk about a close call. Remember how, a couple of posts ago, I mentioned finishing culinary school? My last required course was on wedding cakes, and my mixer at home really got a workout while that class was going on. Picture multiple cake layers of all sizes, and back-breaking batches of buttercream. I was baking like a demon well into March. As usual, I counted on my trusty KitchenAid 6-quart to help me get the job done. Gosh, I loved that mixer. I was always waxing rhapsodic about it. I bought it around the time I started this blog, so it's appeared here in countless photos over the years. I remember when I took it out of the box and beheld it for the first time, I felt like the proud owner of a Formula 1 race car. Couldn't wait to drive it. I knew it was the start of something big.

That industrious mixer worked like a champ, right up until a few weeks ago. The day I used it to make bowl after bowl of cake batter for my final project it chugged and coughed like a washed-up prize fighter who refused to hit the mat. It finished the job but, clearly, something was wrong. The next time I turned it on, a couple days after my class had officially ended, the mixer emitted a low growl--the unmistakable grinding of metal on metal--and followed that up with a ghoulish shriek, as if wailing at the injustice of life.

Then it seized up. The timing alone was a little eerie, I have to say.

Not believing that it could actually be dead, I tenderly tucked it into my minivan and chauffeured it miles across town to a special repair shop to get it checked out. I wasn't overly worried. My perception had always been that KitchenAid mixers simply didn't die young. They just didn't do that. They were too good for that . . . weren't they? I accepted that it might be pricey to fix, but the expense would be worth it. After all, this mixer and I had had countless good times together. We were BFFs. Like Lucy and Ethel. Like Thelma and Louise. Heck, we were a baking marriage made in heaven.

So when I got The Call a couple of days later informing me that it "wasn't worth fixing" I was stunned. Choking back a tiny sob, I listened as the repairman rattled off a list of my mixer's troubles. He postulated that a freak internal break of some kind had occurred weeks or even months before, causing ball bearings and whatnot to fall into the gearbox, where they'd been tossing about like jumping beans ever since, stripping the gears to kingdom come.

He marveled at the mechanical carnage. It was a situation entirely without hope. He paused for a moment and then added, not unkindly, "I don't charge for what I can't fix, so there's no charge for this."

I recovered from the grief in, oh, about an hour (I'm resilient that way), determined there was nothing to do but get on with life, and promptly began shopping for a replacement. I still had faith in KitchenAid despite the catastrophe, and decided the mixer's failure after only four years must have been a rare fluke. I'd give them the benefit of the doubt, just this once, and take the opportunity to upgrade. Because, as we all know, having a legitimate reason to upgrade is the unspoken silver lining when any kitchen gadget bites the dust, without a doubt. Within minutes online I spotted a deal on KitchenAid's new 7-quart mixer--bigger, better, stronger--and placed my order.

The fresh model (pictured in the background above) arrived in less than a week and I'm happy to report that we're getting along like a house on fire. Gloriously shiny, in candy-apple red, it's remarkably quiet compared to even a properly functioning KitchenAid 6-quart. Its larger bowl makes it easier to deal with hefty quantities of dough and, best of all, it has a more powerful motor. I am optimistic it will live far longer than its unlucky dead-at-four-years-old predecessor. It had better live longer, in any case, or I'll have to rethink my long-time love affair with KitchenAid, and that, my friends, is a scenario I shudder to contemplate.

And so, in celebration of my old mixer's life and the new mixer's entrance into my kitchen, I present to you a very fine bread, enhanced by the inclusion of unpeeled, tender-skinned, Yukon Gold baby potatoes.

About this recipe . . . 

This formula produces two large and impressive loaves. It's adapted from The Bread Book: A Baker's Almanac, by Ellen Foscue Johnson. I significantly reduced the amount of fat and sugar in her formula (halving both), and the bread still turned out richer than I expected. What else did I change? Well, the original recipe did not specify Yukon Golds, but I love them. Also, I used instant yeast instead of active dry, used bread flour instead of all-purpose, I halved the amount of eggs (used only one), and I used a little whole wheat flour and a dab of wheat germ. And, as usual, I rewrote the instructions to reflect exactly what I did. This soft bread has nice flavor and a beautiful texture. It doesn't dry out quickly at all, but when it starts to do so I encourage you to use it for toast--it's fantastic toasted.

Yukon Gold Potato Bread
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Yield: 2 large loaves

1 cup milk (I used 2%)
1 cup warm well-mashed Yukon Gold baby-size potatoes, unpeeled
1 scant cup warm water
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 large egg, lightly beaten

6 to 7 cups unbleached bread flour (about 2 lbs.)
1 and 1/4 tablespoon instant yeast (or use 1 and 1/2 tablespoon active dry, but proof it first)
2 teaspoons salt (I used coarse kosher)
1 and 1/2 tablespoons toasted wheat germ
1/3 cup whole wheat flour
1 pinch ground ginger

About 2 teaspoons softened butter to brush on baked loaves

In a large saucepan heat the milk, mashed potatoes, warm water, and honey, stirring with a whisk.  Add in the butter, and cook until the butter is melted. Take the pan off the stove and let it cool to just lukewarm, then whisk in the beaten egg.

Place 3 cups of the flour, the yeast, salt, wheat germ, wheat flour, and ginger in the large bowl of your mixer. Using the paddle attachment on lowest speed, mix together to combine. Pour all of the wet ingredient mixture into the bowl. Mix on low speed for two minutes, gradually adding in more flour until you've used 6 of the 7 total cups. If the dough is extremely soft and wet, add in most of the remaining cup of flour.

Switch to the dough-hook attachment and mix on the lowest speed for about 4 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Or, dump the dough out of the bowl onto a well-floured work surface, flour your hands, and do all of the kneading by hand. (I did the first minute or two in my mixer, then dumped it out and finished kneading by hand. I almost always do some variation of this because I just get a better feel for what's going on with the dough by touching it, and I'm less likely to over-knead a dough this way.)

Put the dough into a large bowl that's been oiled or sprayed with vegetable spray. Cover the top of the bowl with a piece of plastic wrap that's also been oiled/sprayed, and cover that with a lightweight dish towel.

Let the dough rise at room temperature for about an hour, or until doubled in bulk. (Mine rose very high. Check out that photo below!)

Dump the risen dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and deflate it by pressing on it.  Divide the dough evenly into two pieces. Round each piece, using both hands, by gently tugging downward in a circle; you want to create surface tension. Put the rounded pieces back on your work surface, cover them with the greased plastic wrap, and let them rest for about 12 minutes.

Grease two standard size loaf pans.

Shape each piece of dough into a loaf, being careful to tuck in the ends and tightly pinch closed all seams. (If you need help shaping your dough, check out this helpful post at Farmgirl Fare, it's a good reference if you're fairly new to the bread process.) Place the dough into the greased pans, cover them loosely with the greased plastic wrap and a lightweight dish towel.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Let the loaves proof (have their final rise) in a spot that's at least room temperature until the middle of the dough has risen at least 1-inch above the edge of the pan (probably half an hour to an hour). Gently remove the plastic wrap. Spritz the tops of the loaves thoroughly with water (I use a plant mister to do this, but if you don't have one you can always wet your hands and pat the water right onto the loaves if you do it gently) right before you're ready to place them in the hot oven. Quickly spritz a few squirts of water directly into the oven (but away from the lightbulb). The use of water will help keep the loaves from "bursting" when they start their dramatic rise.

Bake on the middle rack for around 35 minutes total, but check the loaves at about 20-25 minutes to see if they're browning too quickly; if they are, cover them lightly with a sheet of foil. The loaves are done when their outsides are deeply golden all over, and their insides have reached 200 degrees (stick an instant-read thermometer in their bottoms to check if you're not sure; I almost always do this with larger loaves). Remove the fully baked loaves from their pans immediately, brush the top of each loaf with a teaspoon of the softened butter, and let them cool on a rack before slicing.

(If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, please click on the purple COMMENTS below.)

Friday, April 5, 2013

Chai & Rum Banana Bread . . .

It's been quite a while since I've whipped up a batch of banana bread and shared it here, so today's treat is long overdue. This quick-bread has just a little bit of bite, thanks to a few of the typical chai tea spices--cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and allspice (no pepper or cloves here, but feel free to add in a pinch or two if that's your thing)--along with a modest splash of dark rum. Why the rum? Well . . . let's just say that bananas and rum are really good pals and leave it at that. 

Simple to throw together, this bakes up in about an hour, and smells fantastic doing so. Makes a  velvety-textured breakfast bread or snack. In fact, Nathan, my sixteen-year old, informed me a few minutes ago that this stuff's great slathered with peanut butter (who knew?). So, save those brown bananas! Yes, they are good for something after all. 

About this recipe . . . 

Adapted from a recipe in the May 2012 issue of Cooking Light magazine, you can certainly glaze this bread if that's the way you're leaning. Picture a thin rum-spiked icing, drizzling down the sides of this golden loaf. Yum, right? Of course. But, honestly, the brown sugar in the batter, not to mention the over-ripe bananas themselves, make this just sweet enough without pushing it into dessert territory. Sometimes, that's all the sweetness a girl craves, and such was the occasion. 

I made a few minor alterations to the original formula, including reducing the amount of sugar by about 25 percent, and using all brown sugar versus a combo of white and brown. I also added in a tablespoon of dark rum, just to jazz things up, fiddled with the spice amounts a bit, increased the salt by a mere smidgen, and used vanilla-bean paste instead of vanilla extract. And, as always, I reworded the recipe to reflect exactly what I did.

Chai & Rum Banana Bread

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a standard size (9" x 5") loaf pan. 

1 and 1/2 cups soft, very ripe banana (about 3 medium-sized bananas), mashed
1/3 cup plain fat-free yogurt (I used Greek style, Chobani brand.)
5 tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
2 large eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup brown sugar, firmly packed (I used light brown sugar.)
2 and 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (I use unbleached.)
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt (I used coarse kosher salt.)
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla-bean paste (I used paste.)
1 tablespoon good-quality dark rum

In a medium mixing bowl, lightly whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and spices. Set aside.

In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment on medium-low speed (or you can easily do this recipe all by hand, if you prefer), mix the banana, yogurt, melted butter, eggs, brown sugar, vanilla, and rum until very well combined, for a minute or two. 

Add the dry ingredients all at once to those in the mixer bowl and mix on the lowest speed just until combined, definitely less than one minute (over-mixing will make the bread tough). The batter will look a little lumpy. 

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan, smooth the top if needed, and bake for 50 minutes; check the loaf by inserting a toothpick into the center. It should come out mostly clean. If it doesn't, bake for another five to ten minutes and check again. The top should be dark golden brown when it's ready. If it looks like its browning too fast, lightly cover the top with a sheet of foil.

Let the finished loaf cool in its pan, on a rack, for about five minutes before removing it from the pan. Let it finish cooling on a rack. Store well covered. 

(If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, please click on the purple COMMENTS below.)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Good Things Come to Those Who Bake: What Culinary School was Like, and Why I'm Glad I Did It

What began for me in May of 2009 as an exciting and downright scary culinary adventure is drawing to a close. This week, I completed my sojourn as a baking & pastry-arts student in a well-regarded culinary school, here in suburban Detroit. I never expected it would take me quite this long to complete the program but life happened, as they say, and priorities now and then had to shift. It's been a long and occasionally wild ride, and I don't regret one minute of it.

(This fondant-covered wedding cake was my last project, in my last class. I completed it, and brought it home, on Monday night. Biggest cake I've ever made! It weighed a ton.)

(This blown-sugar swan was a project in Pastry II. I wrote about it here.) 

What drove me to plunge into such a program in the first place? After all, I was 48 years old when I started. What in the world provokes a busy middle-aged woman, with plenty of regular responsibilities, to take up something like this? Why put oneself through the stress of such rigorous cooking and baking classes? Really, at the root of it all, I just wanted to learn new things about baking and pastry that I felt couldn't be learned well on my own. I wanted to be able to crack the code of the classic techniques and most mysterious methods. I wanted to get the kind of careful and ordered instruction from experts that, I felt, could not be gained outside of a formal and structured setting. A couple of basic community-education classes in cake decorating, that I took for fun in 2007, just whet my appetite for more. The next logical step was staring me in the face.

(This box, made entirely of chocolate, was filled with artisan chocolate candies. 
From Pastry II class, this was one of my favorite projects. I wrote about it here.)

And, naturally, the support and encouragement of my husband and kids was a critical factor all along. If they hadn't been okay with me taking lots of time for the classes and homework, I wouldn't have been comfortable doing it (thanks so much, guys!). They are truly the greatest.

(Sam-the-Snowman cake was my final project in Theme Cakes class, in 2010. 
I wrote about him here.)

So, was it all fun and games? Not on your life. Were there teachers there, a la Gordon Ramsay, who seemed to get their kicks by publicly berating people? Oh yeah, I can think of one or two in particular. Was I the oldest student there? Not by a long shot. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the program was the extreme diversity of the student population. Kids right out of high school, men in their twenties right out of the service, women in their fifties who'd left long and/or lucrative careers to follow their dream.

(Three fresh loaves from my Artisan Breads class. I wrote about that class here.)

The year I started, a cluster of middle-aged folks who'd been laid off in the economic collapse also entered the culinary school. Training for new careers, most of them were hopeful, resolute, and took the endeavor seriously. One man I met had been a pipe-fitter at Ford for over thirty years. His new dream was to open a bagel shop. He looked tough, but was actually a softie, and he loved to chat about his life. I once saw him riding his Harley home from school, cloaked in black-leather from top to bottom, with a brown grocery bag of what I knew to be freshly baked bread strapped securely to the back of his bike. Our artisan-breads class had just ended for the day. When I saw him I thought, "Can't judge that book by its cover. A biker might really be a baker."

(I made this sacher torte for my Cookery class in fall of '09; part of my 
assignment was to write an essay on its historical origins. I blogged about the cake here.)

And in a similar vein, last fall, I was dumbfounded when my baking partner in Plated Desserts II confessed to me that she'd abandoned a decades-long career as an ob/gyn in large part to attend culinary school. She quietly shared this information with me, one night after class, as if she were admitting to a crime. She told me that being a pastry chef had been her one big dream since high school, but her parents hadn't allowed her to even consider it; they'd insisted she go to medical school. I was astounded by her story and even wondered if she might be making it up. Curiosity got the better of me. I Googled her name and, sure enough, that woman is an accomplished doctor. That one really took the cake, no pun intended.

(This Elmo cake was one of  our first projects in 
Theme Cakes class, in 2010. I wrote about this cake, here.)

Being a student in this program exposed me to so many fresh experiences, and to new people. Case in point: I'd never in my life pried open a live oyster before I had to do this in Cookery class. I remember how my teacher, who happened to closely resemble the Swedish chef character from the Muppets, demonstrated our task, then chose me to try it first. He handed me the oyster knife and a special armor-like glove to wear on the hand that would hold the oyster. I took them from him, put on the glove, and then realized I needed to stop for a moment to take off my glasses in order to really see what I was doing. An outgoing student who'd just gotten out of the Navy--a tall, wiry guy who looked rougher and older than his years--commented loudly, "She's keepin' it real!" His name was Nick, and he was a character. Once he asked me if I had any kids and I told him I had two teenage sons, who were at the time 13 and 16. He looked at me in complete surprise, and said to me quietly, "No kidding? Well, bless your heart." I guess he expected anyone with two teenage sons would have to behave like a drill sergeant at all times, a description that rarely fits me. We never had another class together but the one time we ran into each other the next semester, I was in Retail Baking class at the time, stirring something on a stove, and he bellowed out to me from a distance, "Hey Jane! Still kickin' ass?!" Of course I responded, "Always!"

(I thought this alligator bread was about the cutest thing I'd ever seen when we made it, 
along with turtle bread, in Retail Baking, winter of '10.)

I could go on and on with little tales like that from school, and I'm sure in future posts I will. But enough for now. I really just wanted to share the news with you that I am truly and finally done! Joy! And as a result, I hope to be more present, here in this blog, which is like an old friend to me, in the weeks ahead. Thanks to you readers for once more stopping by, and for sharing this journey with me.


(If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, please click on the purple COMMENTS below.)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Three-Seed Sourdough Sandwich Bread . . .

So, I have this sourdough starter that began its productive life almost three years ago, when I took what turned out to be, for me, an incredibly valuable artisan breads class. The starter lives, most of the time, in our basement fridge and occasionally emerges to get a little air and enjoy a snack, as all starters like do to from time to time. It's really pungent whenever I open up its container, really sour and sharp. I've made some of the best bread of my life with that stuff, and I hope it never gives up the ghost. Why I've never done a blog post highlighting the loaves of bread I've produced with it, I can't adequately explain. I'm talking about the kind of sourdough bread that has to proof for a long, long, long time, and which is then baked on a stone in a very hot oven enhanced with steam. This sort of bread has the most glorious, indescribable crust. I guess I just don't know how to explain how to reliably reproduce that kind of bread, probably because I'm not sure I even know myself. It's a bit unpredictable, temperamental. It has a mind of its own.

Anyway, suffice it to say that some sourdough starters can help you produce bread that is excruciatingly good. They assert themselves in finished loaves in a provocative way. They love attention. They positively bask in the glow.

But, then again, there are also some perfectly respectable sourdough starters out there that are kind of shy. In a finished loaf, their flavor tends to hang back. They're mild-mannered wallflowers, yet they're reliable and tasty, and--really--what would the world of bread be without them? That's the kind of starter that appears in today's recipe. It won't knock you off your feet with it's sourness. It'll just nudge you gently. I bought the beginnings of this shy starter just before Christmas from King Arthur Flour (KAF), and have used it three or four times thus far. Its pedigree is distinguished, to say the least. According to KAF, the ancestor of the starter I purchased came into existence well over two hundred years ago. Amazing, isn't it? I couldn't resist ordering it when I read that.

History has shown that a well-cared-for starter can thrive for ages. Literally. And, much as I will always love that very-sour starter in my basement fridge (whose ancestors hailed from a bona fide San Francisco sourdough), I really wanted to try one that was old as Methuselah, just to see what it was like. So when this shy guy arrived several weeks ago, I was excited. I brought it in the house the moment the package hit my porch. It was practically weightless, packed into a small plastic jar. I opened it, sniffed it, and quickly fed it according to the accompanying directions. (KAF actually urges you to name your sourdough, as if it's a baby they've given up for adoption.) I peered at it anxiously over the next couple of days, reassured by increasingly obvious signs of life. It woke up beautifully, bubbling right on cue. Now, it's pretty much a member of the family.

About this recipe . . .

Gently adapted from this very easy formula on the KAF website, I altered the recipe by doubling it; using a simple mixture of sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, and flax meal in place of their "Harvest Grains Blend" (something I have never tried, but that can be found here); and by rewording the formula to reflect exactly how I assembled it. (You can use fed or unfed starter; I used fed.) I did most of the kneading by hand, and didn't have a dough that was nearly as sticky as the original recipe warns. This is a well-textured loaf that will stay fresh and soft longer than many leaner breads. I used olive oil in it, and that flavor clearly comes through; if you aren't crazy about olive oil, be sure and use a vegetable oil instead. The sourness from the KAF starter was indeed very mild. I think maybe as my new starter matures, it'll take on more character, especially when used in long-proofing bread. It should be interesting to see how it evolves over the next few years/decades/centuries. Stay tuned!

Full Disclosure: Hey, in case you're wondering, I'm just naturally a big fan of King Arthur Flour products and recipes. I was not compensated in any way to wax rhapsodic about their stuff, nor have I ever gotten anything free from them (like, ever). I confess that I just love KAF. Heck, I wish the company was headquartered in Michigan so I could camp on their doorstep, dough-whisk in hand, an unrepentant and flour-dusted bread-groupie. 

Three-Seed Sourdough Sandwich Bread

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Makes two standard-size loaves.

1 and 1/2 cup liquid sourdough starter, fed or unfed (I used fed; this recipe uses the starter more as a flavoring than as a leavener [it also includes commercial yeast for leavening], so it's okay if you use unfed. This type of liquid starter is the consistency of thick, stretchy, sticky pancake batter; it is not a solid starter. Here's a link from King Arthur Flour that will show you how to make a starter from scratch, in case you have never tried it; note that making one from scratch takes at least several days. It's worth the trouble. Once you've got your own starter up and running, the sky's the limit!)
1 and 1/3 (up to 1 and 1/2 cups) lukewarm water
2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil (I used olive oil, which definitely adds a distinct flavor.)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 and 1/2 teaspoons salt (I used coarse kosher salt.)
3 cups (or slightly less) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup plain potato flakes or 1/2 cup potato flour (I used unflavored potato flakes, the dehydrated stuff you can buy to make mashed potatoes.)
1 cup white whole wheat flour or whole wheat flour (I used white whole wheat.)
2/3 cup (total) combined mixture of sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and flax meal
4 teaspoons of instant yeast

In the large bowl of your mixer (or, if you prefer, do this by hand), combine all of the dry ingredients and gently mix them together using the paddle attachment on the lowest speed. Add in the sourdough starter, water, and oil. Mix for a couple of minutes until a nice sticky dough has started to form. At this point, if you want to stick with the mixer, switch to the dough hook and mix on low speed for about four more minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic; if you want to knead the dough by hand, dust a clean work surface with a small handful of all-purpose flour, and knead the dough until it's smooth and elastic (this took me about seven minutes by hand).

Put the dough into a bowl that's been greased, oiled, or sprayed with vegetable spray (I did the latter). Cover the bowl with a piece of greased, oiled, etc. plastic wrap, and then cover that with a lightweight dish towel. Let the dough rise in a draft-free spot for up to about two hours, until it's doubled or almost doubled (mine was doubled at 90 minutes; that's it below, looking nice and puffy).

Lightly grease two standard-size loaf pans (I always use a pastry brush to coat bread pans with vegetable shortening). When the dough has risen sufficiently, dump it out onto a barely flour-dusted work surface (the less flour added at this point the better) and gently deflate the dough. With a bench knife or sharp chef's knife cut it into two equal pieces. Round each piece with your hands, pulling slightly downward on the tops to create surface tension. Let them rest, covered with the greased plastic wrap, for about 12 minutes.

Uncover the pieces and form them into loaves, being careful to tightly pinch closed all seams; place the pieces, seam-side down, into their pans.

Lightly cover the pans with the greased plastic wrap, and cover that with the dishtowel. Place the pans in a draft-free spot that is a little warmer than room temperature.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Let the loaves proof (have their final rise) until the dough rises at least 1" over the top of the pan. Carefully uncover the risen loaves. Mist them with water (use a squirt bottle; if you don't have one, wet your hands  and very gently pat the tops of the loaves) right before you put them in the oven. Place them in the preheated oven on the middle rack, and quickly squirt your mister into the oven to create a quick burst of steam (be careful not to aim for the lightbulb).

Bake for about 20 minutes and then check to see if the bread is browning too quickly; if so, lightly tent the loaves with foil. They should be done in about 30-35 minutes (total time), when the crust is dark golden, and the internal temperature is at least 190 degrees inside. You can check by poking an instant-read thermometer into the bottom of each loaf. (I very often do this, just to be on the safe side. You'll know it's under-baked bread if the inside is kind of gummy/heavy even  after it's cooled.) Take the finished loaves out of their pans and set them on a rack. Melt one or two tablespoons of unsalted butter and use a pastry brush to lightly coat the tops of the loaves while they're still warm. Let them cool almost completely before you slice them.

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Monday, January 28, 2013

Honey Oat Granola Bars with Dried Blueberries . . .

This may well be the first time I've ever used dried blueberries in a recipe. In fact, I almost forgot altogether that I had these Michigan blueberries on hand. I got them last summer from a spice-scented little shop up north. It's crammed with cooking gadgets, household antiques (not for sale), and interesting ingredients. Surrounded by tall trees, the shop's leafy exterior is whimsically cluttered with garden kitsch, and they sometimes have a sign out front that blatantly prods passersby to visit, reading, "If you have a kitchen, get in here!" Tourists oblige. It's just that kind of place. 

Each time I'm in the vicinity, which is typically two or three times a summer, I can't resist wandering in. I've acquired all sorts of culinary doodads there over the years, most of them distinctly non-essential but fun to have. Items like oddly-shaped muffin pans, a cupcake corer, a couple of scissor-like cherry pitters, tiny tart pans, two or more pastry cloths, a rolling-pin stockinette (just the word "stockinette" reminds me of my childhood), spice mixtures, and uncommon jams. It's just not the kind of place you can dash in and out of. You need lots of time to browse. It's a summertime kind of place.

And on this ice-coated day, granola bars, for whatever reason, kind of remind me of summer. Oh luscious, lovely summer . . . warm, sunny summer. Less than five months to go. We can wait . . . I suppose.

About this recipe . . .  

Adapted from Kim Boyce's beautiful book, Good to the Grain: Baking with Whole-Grain Flours, these granola bars are hard, crunchy, and slightly chewy. I made a few minor adjustments to the  formula but nothing radical: I used dried blueberries instead of raisins, substituted toasted wheat germ for a portion of the flaxseed meal, and threw in a modicum of sunflower seeds along with a pinch of ground nutmeg. I'd definitely make these again.

Honey Oat Granola Bars with Dried Blueberries

Yield: 16 squares (made in a 9" x 9" pan)

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 cups rolled oats (I used a mixture of both old fashioned- and quick oats; just what I had on hand.)
2 tablespoons wheat germ, toasted (To toast, spread on a small cookie sheet; bake in 325 oven for 10 minutes, just until slightly darker in color and nutty smelling.)
1 quarter cup, plus 2 tablespoons flaxseed meal
3 tablespoons sunflower seeds (I used roasted and salted sunflower seeds.)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 pinch ground nutmeg
1/2 cup dried blueberries (If you don't have dried blueberries, try raisins or dried cherries/cranberries instead.)

1/2 cup honey
1/4 dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon molasses, unsulphured
1 teaspoon salt (I used coarse sea salt.)

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees. Spray a 9" x 9" square pan with vegetable spray, or butter it liberally ((I used a metal pan, but a glass baking dish is fine too, and I used the spray instead of butter)

Melt the butter in a large, heavy pot (I used a dutch oven). Add in the oats, and stir to combine with the butter. Cook over a medium flame for about six minutes, stirring frequently. You want the oats to turn a little darker.

Dump the oats into a large heat-proof bowl. Wipe out the pot and put it aside/back on the stove; you'll use it later to make the syrup. 

Add the toasted wheat germ, the flaxseed meal, the sunflower seeds, the cinnamon, and the nutmeg into the bowl with the oats. Stir well to combine, then stir in the dried blueberries. 

For the syrup, heat the honey, brown sugar, molasses, and salt in the pot over a medium flame. Stir to combine and then let the mixture simmer at a low boil for approximately 6 minutes. (It needs to boil that long, according to author Kim Boyce, in order to give the granola bars their chewiness.) 

Pour all of the syrup over the dry ingredients, scraping as much as possible out of the pan. Working quickly, use a flexible rubber spatula to mix in the syrup (you can butter/spray your spatula if you like; helps facilitate the stirring). Keep mixing until everything in the bowl looks like it's well coated with the syrup. 

Scrape the granola into your pan and, with buttered hands, evenly and firmly press it down (it will still be kind of hot, so be prepared)

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes (rotating the pan once, after about 13 minutes), until the granola looks nicely shiny and darker than when you put it in the oven. Let the bars cool in the pan, on a rack, for 10 minutes, then cut them into 16 squares while they're still in the pan. (If you wait too long to cut them, you won't be able to neatly do so since they'll become too hard.) Use a rigid metal spatula to remove them from the pan, piece by piece, to finish cooling on the cooling rack.

Store in an airtight container, at room temperature.

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

New Years, Old Places, and Poppy-Seed Kaiser Rolls . . .

We spent New Year's eve in what was for us a most unconventional way. A relaxing and uncrowded way. That afternoon, the four of us took an unhurried drive to the tip of the thumb--Michigan's thumb, that is--to pay a short visit to Port Austin, a tiny village (the population hovers around 700) right on Lake Huron that has sentimental significance for my family. None of us had ever been there in the dead of winter and we were curious to see how it might look. On top of that, we had cabin fever after several days of post-Christmas lounging.

Port Austin is nestled right next to a federal Harbor of Refuge, which means it has a huge breakwater that makes it a haven for boating and fishing. During the warmer months it assumes the identity of a perky little tourist destination. But the rest of the time it's rather sleepy, and that's also part of its appeal. In the almost 45 years that I've been familiar with it, it has never become too big for its britches. It's not as if time there has stood still, but the best aspects of the place have been remarkably well preserved despite the passage of decades.

When I was a child, you could walk through the entire downtown in about five minutes if you didn't stop and linger, and it's still exactly like that. Each time we go there I'm relieved to see that  pretentious boutiques and absurdly expensive restaurants haven't managed to swoop in and take over. It's a welcome-respite kind of a place. It may be humble, but it's certainly well loved. Port Austin is still an authentic place.

Upon arriving, we went first to the harbor and said hello to the lake. The wind there was fierce. We saw only one fellow, geared up for ice-fishing and heading out to a shanty not far from shore. My husband and oldest son strolled out onto the breakwater. Brave souls, those two. Back in the village, we were the only late-afternoon lunch customers in a cozy mom-and-pop place called The Stock Pot. After having a bite, we drove along the edge of the lake to a beautiful beach in a state park outside of town. We passed a man slowly walking his dog on the long road leading in but then we saw no one else, and we were truly alone.

We parked our car and hiked a short trail over the dunes before the water came into view. It was about half an hour before dusk. The clouds looked like thickly piled quilts. They were a hundred shades of wintery blue, as if they'd spent all of 2012 soaking up the colors of the lake.

The dune grasses were weighted here and there with snow, and the most exposed clumps of grass blew back and forth like smoothly brushed hair. On the shore, the sand felt stiff and almost frozen underfoot. Except for the constant wind, all was quiet.

It was the best New Year's eve. Somehow, for me, that simple experience emphasized the freshness of the approaching year. Our four-person celebration wasn't champagne drenched, action packed, or confetti strewn, but it was great. It was more than enough. 

About this recipe . . . 

What does all of the above have to do with today's kaiser rolls? Almost nothing, except that after we returned home that night I started jotting a list of items to bake in 2013. Kaiser rolls were first in line. I scanned my bookshelves for recipes before settling on this one. It's not overly involved and not too time consuming. It results in a slightly sweet, just-dense-enough sandwich roll. And, it doesn't require a pre-ferment/starter or any odd ingredients (unless you consider poppy seeds odd). The formula is adapted from Breads--one thin volume from a series of paperback cookbooks that was produced in 1985 by the California Culinary Academy.

And about that swirly thing . . . 

The most interesting aspect of making kaiser rolls, if you ask me, is the business of creating the spiral design. There are a few differing schools of thought when it comes to achieving that distinctive kaiser swirl, and they're not all created equal.

There is the traditional and frustrating thumb-fold technique, which doesn't seem to have a big fan-club. This method involves keeping one's left thumb stuck inside a curled fold on the left side of a little circle of dough while the rest of the fancy folding is done with your right hand, until that left thumb is eventually allowed to leave its spot and that final fold is tucked "into the bottom dough under the first fold" (got that?). That old-school approach isn't too popular now, even among modern master-bakers like Peter Reinhart. He more or less tells readers of The Bread Baker's Apprentice not to bother with it (he actually compares it to "making a paper flower") and suggests the simpler alternatives of shaping the dough into knot rolls or using a special kaiser-roll stamp/cutter (see that blue thing below?  . . . that's a kaiser roll stamp) to achieve the iconic shape.

Meanwhile, authors Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg of Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking, agree that "kaisers are far and away the most difficult rolls to fold correctly . . ." but they go on to provide a murky black and white photo-tutorial for those folks who still want to try it. I found the tutorial only minimally helpful in attempting the tricky fold (thanks anyway, Stan and Norm).

The last option offered by the experts is to manually cut five curved slashes in each roll with a razor blade or a baker's lame (see that green thing above with a blade at the end? . . that's called a lame, pronounced like the name Tom). Hmm. So what's a home-baker to do? Well, I took a swing at all four shaping methods--folding, knotting, stamping, and slashing--with any number of variations thrown in before settling on the last option as the best. Yes, I had the most success with the slashing method. (Should I admit that I did the slashing with that scalpel-like tool while holding each dough ball in the palm of my hand? Probably not. I should just keep that to myself, lest I be considered suicidal.)

In any case, whatever shaping technique you decide to use, expect a yummy roll. That's what really matters.

Poppy-Seed Kaiser Rolls

(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Yield: 12 sandwich size rolls

1 and 1/2 tablespoons instant yeast
2 cups warm water
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
1/3 cup canola oil
6 to 6-and-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
Egg white from one large egg, mixed with 1 tablespoon of water
Poppy seeds (I'd have more than necessary on hand if I were you; you might actually use half a cup or less, but don't skimp. If you can't find, or you don't like, poppy seeds, try sesame seeds.)

In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment, mix the water, sugar, salt, and oil on low speed just until combined.

In a separate mixing bowl, combine four cups of the flour with the instant yeast; stir or gently whisk in the yeast. Add into the liquid ingredients.

Still using the paddle, mix on medium speed for five minutes.

Now on the lowest speed, add in 1 and 1/2 cups of the flour. The dough will be quite soft.

Dump all of the dough out onto a well-floured board (use some of the remaining flour that you first measured out, starting with about 1/2 a cup and adding more as needed).

Flour your hands and knead the dough until it's smooth and elastic. By the time you're done it should feel tacky but not sticky. This will take about ten minutes if you knead energetically and maybe up to 15 if you knead more gently. Add just enough of the remaining flour to keep the dough from sticking to your board and to your hands.

Put the dough into a large, clean mixing bowl that's been sprayed with vegetable spray, oiled, or greased with shortening. Turn the dough over so it's lightly coated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap that's also been greased, and cover the whole thing with a dish towel. Put the bowl in a warmer-than-room-temperature spot. Let the dough rise for about an hour, until it's doubled in size.

On a very lightly floured surface, dump out the dough and push on it with your palms/knuckles to deflate it. Invert your bowl and use it to cover the dough; let the dough rest like that for 10 minutes.  Using a bench knife, or a sharp chef's knife, divide it into twelve equal pieces (they will probably weigh around 4 oz. each, more or less). Shape each piece into a ball, being sure to pinch tightly closed any seams on the bottoms. Cover one large or two regular size baking sheets with parchment paper and place the balls on them, about two inches apart. Cover the balls with sprayed/greased plastic wrap. Lightly cover them with a dish towel and put them in a warm spot to rise.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Spread a layer of poppy seeds on a tray. Whisk the egg white and 1 tablespoon water in a small bowl. Have a pastry brush standing by.

Once the dough balls have risen for about 30 minutes, until almost doubled, brush the tops of all of them with the egg wash. Then, one by one, gently pick them up and dip them in the poppy seeds. Set them back on the parchment. Using a baker's lame or a razor blade, carefully cut five small slashes on each dough ball, starting from the center and moving outward, creating a spiral design on the top of each one. Don't cut too deeply, but don't be too timid either; try to cut about half an inch deep.

Bake in the middle of the oven. As soon as you put the dough in, quickly mist some water into the oven as well (be careful not to aim water at the lightbulb!). Bread dough likes a steamy atmosphere.

Bake for approximately 20 to 25 minutes. The rolls should be golden brown, with slightly darker bottoms, and their internal temperature should be at least 190 degrees (up to maybe 210). Let the finished rolls cool on a rack.

These freeze well, and also make great hamburger buns.

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