Saturday, June 23, 2012

Homemade Hamburger Buns: As the Suit Makes the Man, so the Bun Makes the Burger

It's hard to predict what Andy, my husband, will say he feels like having for dinner on any given occasion, mostly because he's so flexible and cooperative where culinary pursuits are involved. He  rarely backs away from any dish he's presented with. So, last weekend, I don't know whether I was surprised or nonplussed by the fact that he requested nothing more exotic than hamburgers for his Father's Day dinner. After he told me that, though, I immediately understood that he was hatching a plan; there had to be something unique about those burgers.

Turned out I was right. The burgers would be painstakingly prepared from an interesting mixture of three cuts of beef--brisket, chuck, and beef short ribs--making homemade buns a natural requirement. Andy carefully selected the meat himself from a butcher the day before it was to be cooked. He took it right home, sharpened his chef's knife, and with surgical precision trimmed just the right amount of the fat, cut the meat into chunks, and then semi-froze them. Once the pieces were firm but not rock solid, he ground them using the meat-grinding attachment that hooks onto my beloved red mixer (oh yes, he sanitized my baby thoroughly when he was done). No herbs, spices, or flavorings were added, mind you--not even salt or pepper. Just the unadorned, unadulterated meat. 

On Father's Day, he grilled those burgers for us with the utmost care, and they were a sight to behold. Now, I'm not exactly a diehard fan of any kind of meat. In fact, I don't think it would be hyperbole for me to say I am often indifferent to it. You'll never catch me prowling through meat-centric blogs or waxing rhapsodic about the delicious bone marrow I sampled at a fancy restaurant (involuntary shudder), that's for sure. But, give me a well assembled, expertly grilled hamburger made from sensational stuff and you'll get a noticeable reaction out of me. Maybe even a deeply sincere, "Yummmmm."

Anyway, we placed those hot, glistening patties tenderly atop the classic hamburger buns that I'd baked fresh the same day and, served with coleslaw, a few crunchy chips, and rosy-red watermelon slices, it all made for a fine and unfussy Father's Day supper, I must say. (Gosh. Maybe I actually like meat more than I thought?)

About this recipe . . . 

You might say this burger bun recipe came to me, typed on an old index card, from my late mom (that would be Stella, 1927-2006; honestly, that woman just baked non-stop). Her little handwritten note on the back indicates she first found it in a 1955 Better Homes and Gardens pamphlet called "America's Best Homemade Pies, Cakes and Breads." Her recipe as written would have produced enough for a starving battalion so I reduced the yield down to one dozen standard-size buns, and I fiddled with the method just a tiny bit. 

This is a nice, soft, all-purpose burger/sandwich bun with a slightly detectable sweetness, a smooth crumb, and it's sturdy enough to perform its duty admirably. It won't fall apart even if you stack your juicy burger with loads of condiments. These freeze well, too.

Classic Homemade Hamburger Buns
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, lightly whisked or sifted after measuring
2 and 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast (no need to proof instant yeast)
1 cup warm water
3 oz. vegetable oil
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tablespoon coarse kosher salt
2 medium size eggs, lightly beaten (or 1 and 1/2 large eggs)

2 tablespoons melted butter, to brush atop unbaked buns

In the large bowl of your mixer, using the paddle attachment, combine two cups of the flour and yeast on low speed for several seconds. In a medium bowl, by hand, stir together the warm water, oil, eggs, sugar, and salt. Add this into the mixer bowl. Beat on low speed for about 30 seconds; stop and scrape the bowl and beaters, then increase the speed to medium and beat for 3 more minutes, again stopping to scrape as needed. 

Remove the mixer bowl from the mixer and stir in the remaining flour by hand. If it's extremely soft and still almost liquidy, add in a little more flour, one tablespoon at a time until it seems more workable. Dump the dough out onto a well floured work surface and knead it until it feels smooth and elastic. 


Put the ball of dough into a large bowl that's been oiled or sprayed with vegetable spray. Turn the dough over so it's completely coated. Cover the bowl with a piece of oiled/sprayed plastic wrap. Cover that with a thin dish towel, and place the bowl in a relatively warm spot. Let the dough rise until it's about doubled, perhaps one hour or so. (This is kind of a rich yeast dough--what with the amount of eggs, oil, and sugar it contains--so don't worry if you don't see a quick dramatic rise the way you probably would with a leaner white bread dough. Rich doughs are more subtle in this respect.)

Cover two half-sheet pans with parchment paper.

Deflate the risen dough on a very lightly floured surface. Divide it into three equal portions using a bench knife, or a very sharp chef's knife. Cut each portion into four pieces. Cover the pieces with a sheet of sprayed plastic wrap and let them rest for about ten minutes. 

Uncover them and shape each one them into a smooth ball by rolling it in a small circular motion on your work surface, held gently beneath your closed fingers and palm. Tightly pinch closed any seam on the bottom. Place six buns on each of the two half-sheet pans. Press them down into 3 and 1/2 inch circles. 

Cover them again with the sprayed plastic wrap and a light dishcloth and put them in a warm spot. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees, and let the buns rise for about half an hour as the oven heats up. 

Just before placing the risen buns into the oven, brush the top of each one with melted, unsalted butter.

The buns will bake quickly. Peek at them after about ten minutes. Take them out when the tops are golden and the bottoms are deeply golden. 

Let them cool completely, on a rack, before slicing them for burgers. 

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Layered Apricot Bars . . . and Going with the Flow

Well, I feel like it's officially summer now. The weather's been astoundingly pleasant. Robins and sparrows convene daily for a splash in our bird bath. Jittery black squirrels, which seem to have multiplied overnight, dash in circles around our backyard every morning, just like little kids.

 On the human front, my younger son finished his sophomore year of high school last week and my older son is finally back home after a challenging freshman year in college; their relief is palpable.

My husband, who likes to paint in his precious spare time, has lately been setting up his easel in the backyard. He looks so calm and content with a paintbrush in his hand.

This kind of thing, taken in total, gives me a quiet sense of confirmation that, for the moment at least, all is perfectly well in our little nest. However fragile, however fleeting, these delicate moments of complete satisfaction with life are what it's all about. Maybe it's a mom thing. Or maybe not . . . do you find that to be true as well?

And despite the increasingly warm weather, I find myself in the last week or so more interested than ever in baking. It's like something about the four of us being all together again has suddenly caused my nesting instincts to ramp up, so I figure I'm just going to go with the flow.

Gonna bake whenever the spirit moves me, and if I want to bake something odd or old-fashioned or outrageous or boring, well, that's all fine. This summer, as a baker, I think I'm just gonna let my freak flag fly.

 About this recipe . . .

Adapted from this Hungarian apricot bar recipe on Chowhound, this makes a big, big pan of bars! I added candied ginger and ground cinnamon, used toasted pecans instead of walnuts, and fiddled with the method somewhat. I also added a little lemon juice and sugar into the apricot filling formula. This recipe is kind of labor intensive for a bar, what with the rolling out of the three soft dough layers, but I thought it was worth the time and effort.

Layered Apricot Bars with Candied Ginger
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Yield: 1 half-sheet pan (18" x 13") lined with parchment paper cut to fit the bottom of the pan without extending up the sides

Ingredients for the apricot filling:
12 oz. dried apricots, chopped small
12 oz. good quality apricot preserves
1 cup water
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 tablespoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice

Ingredients for the dough:
5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

8 oz. unsalted butter, softened but not warm
3 tablespoons vegetable shortening
Yolks of 4 large eggs
1 cup thick sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

Ingredients for the mixture of sugar and nuts:

1 and 3/4 cups toasted pecans, chopped small
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon finely chopped candied ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Make the apricot filling first:
Simmer all of the filling ingredients together in a medium size saucepan until thick and bubbly. Keep the fire medium-low so it doesn't burn, and stir the contents frequently. Set aside to cool.

Prepare the sugar and nut mixture next.

In a small bowl, stir together all ingredients for the sugar and nut mixture; set aside.

Make the dough:
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In the large bowl of your mixer, on low speed, mix together the butter, shortening, egg yolks, sour cream, and vanilla until well combined. Add all of this into the bowl of dry ingredients and stir it in. Divide the dough into equal thirds. Wrap each piece in plastic wrap and chill it in the fridge for about 20 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Take one piece of dough from the fridge and roll it out onto the parchment paper from your pan. Try to roll the dough as close to the edges of the pan as you can. Use flour on your rolling pin and sprinkle it lightly on the dough as needed. The dough may be quite soft and sticky.

After the dough is rolled out, place it, still on the paper, into the pan. Spread about two thirds of the sugar and nut mixture evenly over the top. Remove another piece of dough from the fridge. Scatter chunks of it on top of the nut layer. Flour your rolling pin again (reflouring it as needed), and roll the chunks of dough out as best you can over that; this layer of dough may look patchy here and there (as shown in the picture below) but that's okay.

Spread all of the apricot filling evenly on top of the layer of dough.

Now, on a well floured piece of parchment, roll out the remaining piece of dough. Make it the same size as the sheet pan; this is the piece you will end up cutting into strips to make the faux-lattice design. Once rolled out, use a pizza/pastry wheel to evenly divide the strips length-wise. Try to make each strip about one inch wide; try to get about 16 strips in all. Carefully lift the strips evenly lay the long ones first atop the apricot layer; use about 6 of them. Cut the remaining strips so they're about 14 inches long, and lay about 10 of them, perpendicular, over the long strips.

Over the top of the lattice, scatter the remainder of the nut and sugar mixture.

Bake the bars for about 30 minutes, until they're nicely golden on top.

Cool them completely on a rack before cutting them and attempting to remove them from the pan. They'll hold up well for a few days, if you keep them covered, before they start to dry out. (Store any leftover bars, as soon as they're cool, well wrapped in the freezer.)

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Vanilla Mascarpone Ice Cream with Sweet Roasted Cherries . . .

"My advice to you is not to inquire why or whither, 
but just enjoy your ice cream while it's on your plate." 
                   -- Thornton Wilder

Solid advice, especially as it concerns homemade ice cream. Seems to me it melts faster than the store-bought stuff, so it's wise to take Wilder's suggestion. Luckily, this vanilla mascarpone ice cream is so darn good that eating it before it softens into a puddle won't be a problem for most folks.

Made with some of the most luscious ingredients known to man--heavy cream, mascarpone cheese, and slowly roasted sweet cherries--this may be one for the record books, it's that fantastic.

Adapted from Jeni Britton Bauer's Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home, the latest ice cream volume to take up residence in my ever-expanding collection, this recipe is simple, as are most of her recipes. Three key elements make her standard method stand out from the crowd: she doesn't use eggs; she uses a smidgen of corn syrup; and, her ice creams are ready to eat far more quickly than the norm.

Until now, I've honestly never encountered an egg-free ice cream that has an undeniably wonderful texture. You probably know that the typical ice cream recipe requires the careful cooking, and then straining, of an eggy custard concoction. That's fine if you know how, for example, to make a decent pastry cream and you are well aware of the potential pitfalls, but it's far from a foolproof process for beginners. The likelihood of overcooking the custard and ending up with something akin to scrambled eggs is high. Yeah, there's nothing quite like the sensation of dumping a steaming saucepan full of expensive ingredients right down the sink after you've been diligently stirring it on the stove, non-stop, until your wrist seizes up. Luckily, it's been a while since I've had to face a pour-it-down-the-sink scenario, but I remember those days well. So, while you do have to cook the milk, cream, and sugar, etc., for Jeni's recipes, the chances of screwing up that step are happily diminished.

In the pantheon of ice cream cookbooks, I think this one is kind of a revelation. As I already mentioned, the recipes generally include a little bit of corn syrup, and though that may be a frowned-upon ingredient for those who require all-organic-everything in their gourmet ice creams, it sure helps to produce a seriously fine result. I think it's worth the trade-off.

I made a couple of minor changes to the original recipe by using mascarpone cheese instead of goat cheese (I love both, but I must confess that I love mascarpone more), and by using fresh sweet cherries instead of sour cherries. Also, I decided to add in a tiny bit of vanilla bean paste (the recipe did not call for any vanilla at all) and I think that rounded out the flavor nicely, still leaving the mascarpone aspect front and center. I also reworded the recipe to reflect exactly what I did.

Both of my kids, along with the hubby, told me they think this may be the best ice cream I've ever made. High praise, coming from them. That, however, is a testament to Jeni Britton Bauer's skill as an artisanal ice cream maker and recipe developer, without a doubt; I can't take the credit. I look forward to using this no-egg method many times in the future. It's a winner.

Vanilla Mascarpone Ice Cream with Sweet Roasted Cherries
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Yield: About 1 quart of ice cream.

To make the roasted cherries:
(This should be made ahead of time and can, if you like, be prepared days in advance and kept in the fridge until you need it.)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

2 cups of pitted sweet cherries
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch

Place the cherries in a medium size baking dish/pan (I used a 9"x13" glass dish). Whisk the sugar and cornstarch together in a little bowl and scatter that over the cherries. Toss them around until evenly coated. Roast the cherries in the oven, stirring them about every 15 minutes, until the juice looks thick and bubbly, about 35-40 minutes or so.

Strain most of the liquid off the roasted cherries and let them cool completely before using them in the ice cream. (If the cherries are large, you can cut them into chunks before or after roasting, if you prefer; that's what I ended up doing with mine.)

To make the ice cream:

2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon cornstarch
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
1 and 1/2 ounces cream cheese (3 tablespoons), room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or vanilla extract)
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 and 1/4 cups heavy cream
2/3 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup

In a very small bowl, stir together 2 tablespoons of the milk with all of the cornstarch until smooth (this is the "slurry").

In a large bowl, with a fork, mix together the mascarpone, cream cheese, vanilla, and salt until smooth and well combined. Set aside.

Fill a large bowl about 3/4 of the way full with cold water and ice. Have a large, clean Ziploc bag ready and propped open near the bowl.

In a large saucepan, combine the rest of the milk, the heavy cream, the sugar, and the corn syrup. Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a rolling boil. Boil for 4 minutes. Take the pan off the burner and slowly whisk in the cornstarch slurry, whisking constantly. Return the pan to the burner and bring back to a boil, again over medium-high heat, now stirring continually with a rubber spatula. Cook until slightly thickened; this will take about 1 minute. Take the pan off the heat.

Pour the hot milk mixture slowly into the bowl with the mascarpone and cream cheese, whisking until it's quite smooth. Pour all of this into the Ziploc bag, seal it, and place it into the bowl of ice water. Leave the bag in there until the liquid in it feels pretty cold, at least half an hour. Add more ice to the bowl as needed.

Follow the directions for your own ice cream freezer, churning the ice cream until it's thick. (I use the ice cream attachment for my KitchenAid mixer and my ice cream took at least 20 minutes to thicken.)

 Get out your roasted cherries and a spoon. As you pack the thickened ice cream into one or two storage containers (I used two pint-size glass containers that have plastic fitted lids), spoon some of the cherries in frequently; don't stir/mix them in, simply layer them.

Cover the containers securely. Chill them in the coldest part of your freezer for at least 4 hours, until the ice cream is as firm as you'd like (I ended up letting mine chill overnight, but I did check it after only 4 hours and, relatively speaking, it was probably firm enough to serve).

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