Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Hearty Oatmeal Bread . . . with Walnuts & Sweet Dried Cherries

I bake really often, which I'm sure comes as no surprise. But the fact is, I only blog about a fraction of the stuff I bake. That's because not everything I bake at home is a brand new recipe for me (there are always the old favorites that my family requests over and over), and not every new recipe I try turns out to be pleasing enough to even bother sharing. On top of that, I do a lot of fiddling around and experimenting with recipes--often to their advantage and sometimes to their detriment--so what emerges from my oven can be unpredictable. I'm always happy as a clam when something turns out surprisingly well, and I'm positively on cloud nine if anyone expresses unbridled enthusiasm for what I've come up with.

It's not hard to please people with a gorgeous cake or a gooey cookie, but it's always a surprise to me when a wholesome loaf of bread elicits that same ardent fervor from my taste-testers. That's what happened with this yeast bread. Highlighting oats, a little flax meal, walnuts, and sweet dried cherries (from the orchards of northern Michigan, of course), this loaf has a buttery warmth that's hard to resist. This past weekend, the hubby actually said to me, "You have GOT to make this bread again. I love it." Those were pretty strong words, coming from him. He's always open to trying any new food but, ultimately, he's a man of fairly discriminating taste. Only time will tell, but I suspect I'll eventually be adding this recipe to our growing list of favorites. I think it's a keeper!

About this recipe . . . 

Adapted from a King Arthur Flour oatmeal bread recipe, I tweaked this loaf to include a small amount of chopped dried cherries, chopped walnuts, and flax, and I made a few measurement alterations to some of the other ingredients while customizing some of the steps. Both walnuts and cherries, if you ask me, are among the most flavorful ingredients you can add into yeast bread; walnuts lend that buttery aspect, while cherries pack a tangy gusto that other dried fruits just can't muster. It's a great combo.

This recipe is very simple, and not too time consuming. The bread is delicious even eaten plain, but it's at its absolute best when toasted and buttered. I hope you like it as much as we did.

Hearty Oatmeal Bread with Walnuts and Sweet Dried Cherries
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Makes one standard size loaf (about 9"x5").

3 and 3/4 cups unbleached bread flour (divided use)
1 cup old fashioned oats, pulsed (on and off) in a food processor for 30 seconds
2 Tbsp. flax meal (Easy to find in health food stores, and some grocery stores. If you don't have it, or prefer not to buy it, I think you could substitute an equal amount of whole wheat flour, ground oats, or bread flour.)
3 Tbsp. light brown sugar, lightly packed
1 and 1/4 tsp. coarse kosher salt
2 and 1/4 tsp. instant yeast (I use SAF brand instant yeast; they sell it in health food stores, from King Arthur Flour, and I've seen it at Whole Foods. You don't have to proof instant yeast and it's very reliable.) 
3/4 cup warm milk
1/2 cup warm water

3 Tbsp. soft unsalted butter
1/2 cup well-chopped walnuts
1/2 cup well-chopped dried cherries, loosely packed

1/4 cup melted unsalted butter, to brush on the top of the unbaked and just-baked loaf

In a large mixer bowl, by hand, whisk together 3 cups of the flour (reserving 3/4 cup), the ground oats, flax meal, sugar, salt, yeast, nuts, and cherries. Put the bowl on the mixer and, using the flat beater on the lowest speed, add in the milk, water, and butter. Mix for a minute or two to combine, until the dough looks shaggy.   

Turn the mixer off, clean the dough off of the flat beater, and switch to the dough hook. Mix on the lowest speed using the hook for 2 minutes. 

Dump the shaggy dough onto a well-floured surface (use your leftover 3/4 cup flour). It should be pretty moist; if it's not very moist, use less flour on your work surface. 

Knead the dough by hand for about 4 minutes, until it feels relatively smooth and elastic. 

Put the dough into a greased (or sprayed with vegetable spray) bowl. 

Cover it with a greased/sprayed piece of plastic wrap, then cover the top of that with a dish towel. Place the bowl in a warm spot and let it rise until almost doubled (as in the photo below); this may take about 60 to 75 minutes.

Meanwhile, grease one 9"x5" standard-size loaf pan. Take the risen dough from its bowl, and deflate it on your work surface by pressing on it with your palms/knuckles. Use as little flour as you can get away with at this point (just enough to keep it from sticking; excess flour added at this point does more harm than good). Pick the dough up and gently round it, tugging downward on the sides; you want to create a bit of tension on its surface. Cover the dough again with the greased plastic wrap, and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes. 

Uncover it and form it into a loaf shape, being very careful to tightly pinch any seams closed. 

Put it in the greased pan, seam side down. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Cover the pan with the greased plastic again, then cover that with the dishtowel, and let the dough proof (have its final rise) in a warm spot for about 45-60 minutes. The proofed dough should have risen above the sides of the pan, as in the photo below. 

Shallowly slash/score the top of the loaf with a baker's lame, a sharp razor blade, or an extremely sharp knife; don't slash deeply (doing this helps the loaf to expand neatly without bursting haphazardly in the oven). Brush the top of the loaf liberally with half of melted unsalted butter, and reserve the rest.

Just before you put the bread in the hot oven, spritz water into the middle of the  oven from a spray-mist bottle (a few good squirts), and/or while the oven is warming up put a shallow pan of very hot water on the bottom shelf of the oven (bread likes to bake in a slightly steamy atmosphere).

Bake the bread for about 30-35 minutes, or until its interior registers 190-195 degrees on an instant-read thermometer (if you want to test it, tip the baked loaf out of the pan and insert the thermometer into the bottom). Don't peek in the oven until the bread's been baking for at least 15-20 minutes. If the bread seems to be browning too fast, cover it loosely with foil. When the bread is done, remove it from the pan to a cooling rack. Brush the top once more, while the bread is still hot, with the remaining melted butter.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Vanilla Velvet Bundt Cake with White Rum Glaze . . .

What a good cake. Velvety texture, nicely balanced flavor. And so pretty. I don't wax rhapsodic about baking pans at the drop of a hat, but in this case, you'll have to excuse me while I do just that. I'll try to make it short and simply say, "Bless you Nordicware, for making such a swirly, whirly, incredibly high-quality, seemingly indestructible, unbelievably nonstick, bundt pan. (And thanks to you, too, Williams Sonoma, for selling it!)"

I know what you're thinking, and the answer is no, I did not get the pan for free, nor am I being compensated to gush over it. I bought it myself. Really. I just happen to love it. Completely. Yeah okay, but why, you ask? Pull up a chair and I'll tell you.

I've been around the block a few times with various and sundry bundt pans, as you may know, with mixed and sometimes sad results--light ones, dark ones, flimsy, not so flimsy, nonstick, everythingstick--you name it. I've made coconut bundts, lemon bundts, sweet potato bunds, chocolate zucchini bundts, mocha bundts, banana bundts, ad infinitum bundts, and I've rarely had an entirely problem-free experience.

But the Nordicware Heritage bundt did not let me down in any respect. As pans designed for home bakers go, it's heavy duty, to be sure. You'd probably have to drop this bad boy from a highway overpass to dent it (but I'd advise against that unless you're overly curious about the inner-workings of the justice system). And, if you grease and flour with the utmost care, you will be rewarded a hundred fold when you unmold your cake. Prepare to gasp in stunned delight when you see how perfectly it emerges. No blemishes, and no forlorn cake chunks left clinging to the pan. I had to holler for my husband and son, who were entrenched on the couch watching an old western, to come and look at it with me. They, too, kind of gasped and I think one of them even remarked, "Wow!" Then they returned to the couch. I remained in the kitchen and just stood there, gazing in rapt amazement, drinking in the sight of that perfectly shaped cake, astonished that it had actually entered the world so unscathed. Apparently, bundtastrophes can be avoided, and my cake faith has been restored.

About this recipe . . . 

For my maiden voyage with this pan, I used the basic recipe that came with it, making a couple minor tweaks here and there, including the addition of a very modest amount of white rum in the batter. I also added a quick glaze, which I flavored as well with a dash of white rum, to the semi-cooled cake and I reworded the instructions to reflect exactly what I did. It's an easy cake with a beautiful crumb. I can't wait to concoct further variations on this one.

Vanilla Velvet Bundt Cake with White Rum Glaze

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

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place a shelf in the lower third of the oven.

Carefully grease your bundt pan, taking care to get the grease in every nook and cranny; don't skimp, but don't leave visible globs either. Flour the pan generously, then tap out the excess. (I highly recommend greasing a bundt pan with a professional pastry brush; I use a round, natural-bristle brush. It fits well into corners and doesn't become easily misshapen the way flat pastry brushes do.)

For the cake:
2 and 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 and 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 level tsp. coarse kosher salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened and at room temperature
1 and 1/2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, beaten lightly
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 and 1/2 tsp. white rum
3/4 cup milk, room temperature
1/4 cup half & half, room temperature

For the glaze:
1 cup confectioner's sugar (sifted, or be sure to use 10x)

1and 1/2 to 3 Tbsp. white rum (depending upon how thick you want the glaze to be, and how much rum flavoring you prefer)

In a medium size bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

Stir the milk and half & half together in one container.

In the large bowl of your mixer, on medium speed, beat the butter for about 30 seconds, just until smooth and creamy. Gradually add in the granulated sugar, still on medium speed; beat for approximately 5 minutes, until fluffy; stop to scrape as needed.

Add in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each one, scraping periodically. Pour in the vanilla and white rum, and beat for about 1 minute, until combined.

On your mixer's lowest speed, add in the flour alternately with the milk, starting and ending with the flour (3 equal portions of flour and 2 equal portions of milk). Don't worry if the batter looks sort of curdled at the start of this process. Mix each addition only until incorporated, pausing between additions to scrape the bowl and beaters.

Carefully spoon the batter into the pan; don't pour it from the bowl. Using the back of your spoon, urge the batter up the inner and outer sides of the pan (you'll be creating what looks like a shallow trough).

Bake the cake on the rack set in the lower third of the oven, for about 50 - 60 minutes (mine took 55 minutes), until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, and the cake looks like it's beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan. (Try to resist opening the oven at all until the cake's been in there at least 45 minutes. That's my advice.)

Transfer the pan to a cooling rack and let the cake cool for 15 minutes only. Now pick up the pan by its edges and, still holding it upright, tap it firmly against a hard surface. Hold the cooling rack over the pan and invert the two. Carefully lift the pan off of your cake, and let it finish cooling on the rack.

To make the glaze:

In a small bowl, stir together the confectioners' sugar and the rum, adding the liquid in slowly until the glaze is the texture you prefer; add more sugar if needed to thicken it. Stir until no lumps at all remain. Set the cake on its rack atop a sheet pan, and drizzle the glaze over the almost-cooled cake. Let the glaze set before slicing and serving the cake.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Dill & Sour-Cream Dinner Rolls . . . (Those Amish Ladies Sure Can Bake!)

There are, quite apparently, many things that traditional Amish cooks have pretty much mastered. Among their talents are the production of exceptionally tasty baked goods. These tender rolls, fragrant with dried dill, are a case in point. The inspiration for this recipe, which I customized partly out of necessity and partly to suit my taste, hails from The Amish Cook's Baking Book by Lovina Eicher and Kevin Williams.

This book's humble charm and lack of slick pretension are a respite from much of what one finds these days in the cookbook dept. of big bookstores. Sometimes you crave a fancy book laden with elaborately staged photos and crammed with recipes that don't seem to contain fewer than 20 ingredients each, but then again, there are days when you just can't stomach that. Sometimes simpler is truly better. When I'm feeling that way, I reach for a book like this one. (This recipe, by the way, can easily be made completely by hand. A mixer would just be extraneous. Don't you love that?)

Lovina Eicher, who lives in rural Michigan, is a member of the Old Order Amish. She pens a syndicated column, called "The Amish Cook," that appears in dozens of mainstream community newspapers (Kevin Williams is her editor and collaborator on several books). Her writing voice is warm, open, and companionable.

They say that Amish girls grow up learning how to make the most of what's available while wasting very little, and that they're taught to value meaningful work and a job well done. It sounds, too, as if Amish women on the homefront develop an appreciative awareness of the peace and creativity inherent in daily tasks like baking bread, caring for a garden, stitching a quilt by hand, and so on.

In reading Eicher's book, I kept thinking that we "Englishers" (one term for us non-Amish folks), could likely learn a thing or two from certain aspects of their down-to-earth approach to life. That they're able to sustain their quiet lifestyle as the modern world swirls around them is kind of astonishing. I wonder if they must be uniquely strong in character, or maybe just really brave, in ways that we can scarcely fathom? What do you think?

About this recipe . . . 

What did I change? Well, these rolls were supposed to contain cottage cheese (the original recipe in the book, just fyi, is called Dilly Bread and can make one standard size loaf or one dozen rolls). I, however, am not crazy about cottage cheese and didn't have any on hand anyway, so I substituted a mixture of two-thirds sour cream and one-third cream cheese, and that worked out really well. I also used milk instead of water, clover honey instead of white sugar, and instant yeast instead of active dry. I altered the assembly of ingredients somewhat, and lengthened the rising and proofing times a bit. All in all, things worked out just as I'd hoped and these were extremely delicious, tender, and aromatic rolls. I served them at dinner, warm in a basket, along with seasoned, oven-baked chicken breasts, and fresh cole slaw. Yum.

Dill & Sour-Cream Dinner Rolls

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

Yield: 12 medium size rolls or one standard size loaf of bread

2 and 1/2 cups bread flour (I use unbleached.)
1 and 1/2 tsp. instant yeast (or, if you use active dry, 1 package; proof it first)
1 Tbsp. dried onion flakes
1 generous tsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. dried dill weed
1/4 tsp. baking soda

2/3 cup sour cream, at room temperature
1/3 cup cream cheese, at room temperature
1/3 cup warm milk
2 Tbsp. honey (I used clover honey.)
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1 egg, large

1/4 cup melted unsalted butter to brush onto rolls before and after baking.

In a medium size bowl, whisk together the flour, along with the instant yeast, dried onion flakes, kosher salt, dried dill weed, and baking soda.

In a large bowl, combine the sour cream and cream cheese until the cream cheese is well dispersed and there are no longer any large lumps.

Mix in the honey and butter, then the warm milk and the egg.

Add the flour gradually to the wet ingredients, mixing with a dough whisk or large fork until the dough starts to look somewhat shaggy and uniformly moist.

Lightly flour a clean work surface; dump the dough out onto it and knead the dough by hand for a few minutes, until it's smooth and elastic. (If you like, do the window-pane test to determine when it's ready; pull off a small glob of dough, no bigger than the size of a walnut, and gently stretch it, pulling it very slowly in opposite directions with both hands, while holding it up to the light. When you can begin to see through it without it tearing, then it's done being kneaded.)

Place the dough in a greased (or vegetable sprayed) bowl, turning it so it's lightly coated all over. Cover the bowl with a greased/sprayed piece of plastic wrap, and cover that lightly with a dish towel; place the bowl in a nice warm spot.

Let the dough rise for at least one hour, until it's almost doubled in size. Because this is a rich dough, relatively speaking, it won't rise quickly and dramatically. I let mine rise for about 70 minutes.

Dump the risen dough out onto your floured work surface again and deflate it with your hands, pressing with gentle firmness. Divide the dough into 12 equal pieces (I typically use a bench knife to do this).

Round each piece of dough into a ball shape, pinching any seams together; you want to create a little surface tension on the top of the ball. Let the balls of dough rest on your work surface, covered by the greased plastic wrap, for about 12 minutes. Again pinch any loose seams on the bottom of the balls and place all 12 of them  an equal distance apart on parchment paper (or use a silicone baking mat, as shown here) placed on a half-sheet pan.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Lightly cover the top of the shaped dough balls with the greased plastic wrap, then cover it with the dish towel, and let them proof (have their final rise) in a warm spot for about45-50 minutes. They'll puff up a bit, but not significantly. Brush the proofed dough balls with melted butter. 

Bake the rolls for approximately 15 minutes, until the tops are lightly golden and the bottoms are deeply golden. As soon as they emerge from the oven, brush them again with the melted butter; it will soak in almost instantly.

Let them cool on the baking sheet for a couple of minutes, then move them to a rack to finish cooling. Or, eat them warm from the oven--they're fantastic that way!

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Friday, January 6, 2012

Saying Goodbye to a House: What Homemade Really Means

So many changes have occurred here over the last year--some of them joyous, some kind of bittersweet, some blatantly sad. My first child graduated from high school and bravely headed off to college. My sweet old dad passed away in September, as did my extraordinary mother-in-law on Christmas day (a loss we are still trying to absorb). And, I packed up and sold the home that I grew up in and that my parents occupied for over 50 years. That last event hasn't quite been completed . . . the sale closes next week.

As the closing approaches, I find it more and more difficult to think objectively about the house. Not that one ever really feels dispassionate about the house in which they grew up, nor should they. Despite the fact that it's essentially empty now, the place seems more full to me than it did a couple of months ago when it was still stocked with the belongings of over five decades. It's as if the multitude of memories produced there are all suddenly hovering in the air. Everywhere I turn, a memory appears.

There's the rustic workbench in the basement that my father built when I was little, where he would often spend a leisurely weekend afternoon. He'd be down there, tinkering with this or that while listening to the Detroit Tigers on the radio, or maybe to a live broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. I can picture him leaning against the bench with a distant and relaxed smile, enjoying the music, a golden glass of beer in one hand and a Lucky Strike cigarette smoldering in an ashtray nearby. That workbench is staying with the house, where it belongs. I'm pleased the new owners want to keep it.

And the kitchen, oh the kitchen. It was always the place where I would check first if I was looking for my mom. An awful lot of baked goods originated from that room, along with a lot of silliness and laughter. We had a cumbersome wooden-topped dishwasher, purchased the year I was born, that you had to push/pull over to the sink and hook up to the faucet like a fire-hose to a hydrant. It weighed a ton. I recall moving it into place with my mom in the evening after dinner (no way could a kid do it alone), and then in the morning we'd unhook it, shove it back into its cubby hole, and put away the clean dishes. Occasionally the monstrous thing would get stuck halfway through its journey (a journey of maybe four feet) and we'd have to wrestle it into place, giggling together at the absurdity of the whole scenario. There was cause to rejoice once that dishwasher was replaced with a built-in model when I was about thirteen.

And there was the tiny shelf--a secret hiding place of sorts--built oddly into the sequestered corner of a clothes shoot (remember those?) where my sister and I would often hide a small doll or stuffed animal while playing. When I asked her a few days ago if she wanted me to say anything to the house for her (she lives far away), she specifically instructed me to say goodbye to that special hiding place. Tomorrow, I will do so.

Even the impractically small garage draws me in. As empty now as the house, it used to guard bicycles and badminton rackets, tether ball poles (remember those, too?), rotary lawn mowers, and metal watering cans. I can still see my brother's blue Schwinn bicycle, the one with high handlebars and a long "banana" seat. When I was six years old, I thought he was the coolest twelve-year old on the block speeding along on that thing.

Are the objects the memories?

Those people who are professional organizers say that, in trying to sort and discard the material flotsam and jetsam of life, you should repeatedly remind yourself that the objects themselves are not the memories. "The objects are not the memories!" I keep saying that to myself these days and I know it's definitely true, but it takes a while to convince yourself of that. Thank heaven we get to carry the memories away with us for safe keeping and don't have to leave them behind or pack them into storage.

It's the memories more than anything else that are, after all, quintessentially "homemade."

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