Bread Basket-Case

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When I realized that I could make potato bread without the recipe, I knew the time had come to expand my bread repertoire.   This sounds obvious, but making it happen proved more challenging than you might think.

Every week since school started in August, I’ve baked bread for my daughter’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (okay, I admit to missing one week, but I had a surrogate baker, so I say it counts).  Since I usually begin bread-baking in spare moments after work or before throwing dinner together for my family, I’m a rushed and distracted baker.  This makes familiarity a fine thing.  After baking a recipe several times, I’m able to multi-task:  I can mediate drama associated with intense Candyland rounds or facilitate the sharing of a purple magic marker, all without screwing up my dough, or even forgetting about it completely.

I’d had my eye out for a new recipe to try, but my willingness to trade a little variety for the certainty of mayhem and discontent hindered my progress.  Finally, though, I found a Chez Panisse recipe for cornmeal graham bread that seemed a compelling risk.

The mention of graham in the recipe’s title initially grabbed my attention.  I knew I had some graham flour stashed somewhere in my freezer, the remnants of my adventures making from-scratch s’mores last summer.

The first time I baked cornmeal graham bread, I liked it enough to give it another try, and then another, and then another.

The bread’s nutty flavor and subtle cornmeal-crunch complement peanut butter and jelly, as well as the savory sandwich fillings favored by my husband and myself.

If your timing’s right, though, this bread is best oven-warm slathered with butter.  I realize this isn’t saying much.  What bread isn’t best fresh from the oven slathered with butter?  In any case, the last time I baked this bread, I proceeded to consume nearly one whole loaf in this fashion.

I’m now on my second package of graham flour and need to buy a third.  And I can finally bake and pay attention to my children at the same time.  I guess that means I need to start looking for a new recipe.

Cornmeal Graham Bread

Adapted from Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, by Alice Waters.  Makes two medium loaves.

1/2 cup warm water
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
pinch sugar
4 tablespoons butter (1/2 stick)
2 cups buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 cups graham flour
2 to 3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal

Add water to bowl of standing mixer.  Sprinkle yeast and a generous pinch of sugar over the water’s surface.  Stir to dissolve.  Let stand for 10 minutes until foamy.

Melt butter in a small sauce pan.  Remove from heat and stir in buttermilk, salt, and maple syrup.  Add this mixture to the yeast, along with the graham flour.  Beat vigorously for about a minute.

Add flour while mixing on slow speed, about a 1/2 cup at a time, until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  Add cornmeal and mix just to blend.   Turn the dough onto a lightly floured counter and knead for a minute or two.  Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rest for 10 minutes.  Adding enough flour only to keep the dough from sticking, knead dough again until it is smooth and elastic.

Place the dough in a large greased bowl.  Cover and let the dough rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 to 2 hours.

Butter two 9 by 5-inch loaf pans.   Turn out dough and form into two loaves.  Place in greased pans, cover, and let rise to the tops of the pans, about 30 minutes to 1 hour.  Place loaves in oven preheated to 375° F.  Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until golden brown and loaves sound hollow when tapped on top.  Remove from pans and cool on a rack.

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Tarted Up

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I eyed the cranberries last week as I rolled my cart through the grocery store’s produce section.  I already have several bags of cranberries taking up serious real estate in my too-full freezer, so I tried to keep moving.  I can currently close the freezer door, and I try not to mess with this.  But then I asked the produce guy how much longer they planned to stock fresh cranberries.

“That’s the last of them,” he said.  “When those are gone, we won’t have them again until the holidays next year.”

I wheeled back and grabbed five bags, hoping I had enough to make it through next fall.  We often prepare a traditional holiday turkey meal in February or April or  July or whenever, really.  I hate to get caught without cranberries to simmer into sauce or to mix into stuffing.

And then, of course, there’s baking.   These bold, crimson berries add a distinctive tangy kick to nearly any batter or dough you toss them into.

At  home, I loaded almost all of the fresh bags of cranberries into my freezer.  I felt a bit torn about baking with my stash right away, but I did it for my freezer’s sake.  And besides, when late summer rolls around, I’ll be too busy baking blackberry pie to pine for this Cranberry Cake with Vanilla Crumb Topping.

Rich vanilla-cardamom cake creates a sweet backdrop for bright bursts of tart cranberry.  And the crisped layer of sugary, buttery goodness atop the whole thing contributes texture, not to mention a satisfying crunch.  It’s lovely at dinner’s end, but really, I think I enjoyed it more the next morning at the tea party my daughters spread out on our living room floor.

Before it’s too late, go buy yourself several bags of cranberries to stockpile in your freezer.  If you’re sorry later, you can send them my way.  I’ll probably need them.

Cranberry Cake with Vanilla Crumb Topping

Serves 8 to 12 people.

1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, but into 1/4-inch slices
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Combine flour, sugars, salt, and butter in the bowl of a food processor.  Pulse until the mixture has the texture of coarse crumbs.  Drizzle vanilla over the mixture and pulse briefly to distribute.

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoons ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup sour cream
2 1/2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries, divided

Preheat oven to 350° F.  Butter a 9- or 10-inch spring form pan.

Combine flour, baking powder, cardamom, cloves, and salt in a small bowl.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes.   Add eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition, and then stir in vanilla.

Stir in the flour mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the sour cream in 2 additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed.  The batter will be very thick.

Fold in 1 1/2 cups cranberries and spread the mixture into the prepared pan.  Distribute the remaining cup of cranberries over the cake and sprinkle the crumb topping over the cranberries.

Bake for 45 to 60 minutes (depending on the size of your pan), until lightly golden and firm on top.

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I‘ve always operated under the assumption that real people don’t make puff pastry.  Since most recipes that call for it for include “frozen puff pastry, thawed,” on their ingredient lists, I just figured that the secret to all those crazy layers required too much magic for the likes of me to discover.

But the other day I stumbled across a recipe for puff pastry as I browsed a tapas cookbook.  The directions looked simple and not much more complicated than the steps involved in making pie crust.  Unable to resist, I measured the flours, salt, and butter and tucked them into the freezer to chill for an hour as directed by the recipe.  In the intervening hour I ate my breakfast, took a shower, and started some laundry.  Finally I got to mix up my dough and try out the fold and roll technique that would transform six basic ingredients into light, flaky layers of pastry.  Within hours of finding the recipe, I wrapped puff pastry around dates stuffed with Parmesan cheese and bacon.

Curious to learn more about puff pastry, and feeling like I might be ready to get serious about a career in baking, I consulted Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two.  She provides elaborate directions for two kinds of puff pastry.  Her first version, pâte feuilletée, is “made in a rigidly traditional manner” which requires 6 to 7 hours of prep time before you can even start baking with it.  Among other things, it involves beating sticks of cold butter with a rolling pin.  She recommends the pâte feuilletée for fine dishes or fancy desserts that I cannot pronounce (If you can say pithiviers, please tell me how).   The second type of puff pastry she describes, demi-feuilletée, will do when you aren’t going for fancy, you know, some cocktail appetizers, cheese-filled cases, or say, Beef Wellington.  Demi-feuilletée also involves abusing butter with a rolling pin and only takes four hours, tops — that is if you know how to wield a rolling pin.  But don’t worry, all that work won’t produce anything fancy.

I would love to devote a day of my life to bringing a batch of puff pastry into the world, but until I become a person of leisure or a professional pastry chef, I’m sticking with Joanne Weir’s version–pasta de hojaldre–which did not make it into Mastering the Art of French Cooking, surely only because it represents a Spanish variant of the genre.

If you love to bake from scratch and have felt bullied by presumptuous recipes assuming your incapacity for the art, or at least the craft, of puff pastry, I recommend that you give it a try.  You’ll feel like a genius.  Seriously.

Since I’ve never made either of Julia’s versions, I can’t offer you a comparison, but I can tell you that my family devoured the entire jam tart I baked with this simple puff pastry in one sitting, after which my daughter asked if I would please make it again the next day.

The stuff puffs shockingly, shatters at the merest touch, and delights to no end.   With an active time of maybe 15 to 20 minutes, plus an hour on either end of that, you can have homemade puff pastry ready to use in just over 2 hours.  Take that, Julia.

Quick Puff Pastry  (AKA Pasta de Hojaldre)

Adapted from From Tapas to Meze, Small Plates from the Mediterranean, by Joanne Weir.  Makes approximately 1 pound.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cake flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons butter (2 sticks), cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/4 to 1/3 cup ice water

Mix the flours and salt together in a small bowl and place it in the freezer for 1 hour.  Slice butter and place it in the freezer for 1 hour as well.

Place the cold flour mixture in a food processor.  Add two pieces of butter and pulse until the butter is finely chopped.  Add remaining butter and pulse until the butter is in 1/4-inch pieces.  Combine lemon juice and ice water and add most of the water mixture through the feed tube while the processor is running.  Stop and pinch some of the dough together between your fingers.  If it doesn’t stick, add more water, taking care not to over mix (switch to tossing with a fork if the chunks of butter start getting small).

Turn the dough out onto a large piece of plastic wrap.  It will be very crumbly.  Using the plastic wrap, shape the mass into a rough rectangle.  There will be large chunks of butter showing, and it will look rough and crumbly, but should stick together in a solid mass.  Do not knead.

Unwrap the dough and place it on a lightly floured surface.  Roll the dough into a 1/2-inch thick rectangle approximately 8 by 10 inches.  It will probably crack.  Don’t worry.  This is good.

Fold the two narrow ends to meet in the center.  The dough will crack and break along the folds.  Again, don’t worry;  press it gently together as best as you can, trying not to overwork it.

Fold the dough in half again so that there are four layers.

Turn the dough one quarter turn.  This is your first turn.  Roll the dough out again to 1/2-inch thickness and fold as before.   Repeat exactly this same way twice more.  The dough will crack less as you continue.  Finally, roll the dough once again into a 1/2-inch thick rectangle.  This time, fold the dough into thirds as you would a business letter.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 3 days.

Peekaboo Jam Tart (AKA Jalousie)

Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two, by Julia Child.  Makes 1 6-by-16-inch tart.

1 recipe quick puff pastry
1 cup or so of strawberry, raspberry, or blackberry jam
1 egg, beaten with 1 teaspoon water

Divide pastry in half and return one portion to the refrigerator.  Roll remaining half into an 8-by-18-inch rectangle about 1/8 inch thick.  Transfer topside down onto a parchment-lined, uninsulated baking sheet.  Prick all over at 1/8-inch intervals with the tines of a fork, going right down through to the parchment paper.

Spread a 1/4-inch layer of jam over the pastry, leaving a 3/4-inch border of pastry all the way around.

Turn the borders of pastry up and over filling at sides;  moisten corners with cold water and turn ends over, sealing corners gently with your fingers.

Roll out second piece of pastry into a 7-by-17 inch rectangle (slightly larger than the shaped of filled pastry), 1/8 inch thick.  Flour surface lightly;  fold in half lengthwise.  Measure opening of filled pastry and mark folded pastry to guide you.  Cut slits down the folded edge, making them 3/8 inch apart and half as long as the width of the opening in the tart.

Moisten the edges of the filled bottom layer of pastry with cold water.  Unfold the top layer of pastry over it; brush off accumulated flour, and press in place with your fingers.

With the back tines of a fork, press a decorative vertical border all around the sides.  Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes or until baking time.

Preheat oven to 450° F, placing rack in the lower-middle level.  Paint surface of chilled pastry with egg glaze.  If the jam is oozing through the openings, take care not to mix it in with the egg glaze too much or the surface will burn.  After finishing the first coat, wait a moment, and give it a second coat.

With a sharp knife, make shallow cross-hatchings on top of sides and ends through the glaze, and then set the pastry in the oven.  In about 20 minutes, when pastry has risen and is browning  nicely, turn heat down to 400° F.  Bake 30 to 40 minutes more, covering loosely with foil if the surface is browning too much.

It may seem done before it actually is;  sides should be firm and crusty.  You want to make sure you dry out and crisp all the inner layers of the pastry.  Slide onto a rack when done.  Serve warm or at room temperature with crème fraîche or whipped cream.

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Best Laid Plans

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I have a hard time planning more than a day ahead when it comes to dinner.   Sometimes I pretend I can pull off some extended planning and do a week’s shopping at a time.  When I do, I usually end up tossing out an embarrassing amount of perishable food because it has, well, perished, before I get around to using it.

I hate throwing away food, especially food that I’ve dreamed of combining in pots and pans rather than in the garbage can. To prevent food carnage, I need to go to the store every day, or at least every other day if we’re up for pantry dinner roulette.

Sometimes, though, I take a chance on foods that I know won’t spoil quickly.  But even then I usually veer into unexpected territory.

Take the squash I bought last week.

I planned to turn it into butternut squash risotto, a meal that’s simple to prepare, tasty to eat, and splendid to heat up at work the next day for lunch. Mostly, though, the recipe features bacon.  Need I say more?

But my week got busy.  Evening plans rearranged and changed.  Eventually I used the bacon for something else, so we ate no butternut squash risotto.

When the weekend arrived, I looked at that pale peach gourd on my counter and craved butternut squash galette.
Imagine sweet roasted squash, sauteed leeks, and goat cheese wrapped up in flaky pastry laced with fresh sage.   A wide wedge of galette on my plate–alongside crisp romaine and apple salad with a glass of white wine–made me glad I’d taken this culinary diversion.  I savored bursts of tangy goat cheese interspersed with the hearty, caramelized flavors of squash and leek for dinner.  I couldn’t help but serve myself another sliver before dinner’s end.   And while it wasn’t pretty to look at in my lunch the next day, it sure tasted good.
Just thinking about it makes me hungry all over again.

Butternut Squash Galette

Adapted from Epicurious.  Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer or 4 as a main course.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon sage leaves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 to 6 tablespoons ice-cold water
1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 butternut squash (about 2 pounds), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (4 cups)
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 leeks (white and pale green parts only), thinly sliced crosswise
salt and pepper, to taste
6-8 ounces soft mild goat cheese, crumbled into large chunks

Pulse flour, butter, sage, and salt in a food processor until mixture resembles coarse meal.  Drizzle ice water evenly over mixture and pulse until it just forms a ball, taking care not to overwork dough. Gently press dough into a flat disk about 5 inches in diameter.  Chill dough, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, while you prepare filling.

Preheat oven to 500°F with rack in middle.

Toss squash with salt and 1 tablespoon oil and arrange in 1 layer in a 17-by 12-inch shallow baking pan.  Roast, stirring once halfway through roasting, until golden brown on edges and undersides, 20 to 25 minutes.  Remove squash from oven and reduce oven temperature to 375°F.

Meanwhile, wash leeks, then cook in remaining 2 tablespoons oil with a pinch of salt in a 10-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until tender, 10 to 15 minutes.  Add squash, salt and pepper, and toss gently.  Set aside to cool slightly.

Roll out dough into a 13-inch round on a lightly floured surface.  Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet.  Scatter most of the goat cheese evenly in the center of the dough, leaving a 2- to 3-inch border.  Arrange butternut squash filling over the goat cheese, and then top with remaining cheese.  Fold dough in on itself to cover outer rim of filling, pleating dough as necessary.  Brush pastry with beaten egg and bake galette until crust is cooked through and golden on edges, 35 to 45 minutes.  Place baking sheet on a rack and cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.

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One Sweet Cookie

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My 14-year-old niece Katja likes to bake.   Finding her a Christmas present this year allowed me to do some serious cookbook browsing without feeling completely selfish.  I lose myself in cookbooks almost as much as I do in good novels — let me loose in a bookstore and I pretty much disappear from the planet.   This time, though, I didn’t have to feel guilty about getting wrapped up in words on the page, oblivious to the sound of words spoken by real-live humans.  I wasn’t shopping for myself, and gifts, especially for a niece who lives halfway across the country, require thought.

I couldn’t tell you how much time passed before I finally settled on the perfect book for Katja:  One Sweet Cookie, by Tracey Zabar.   Its diverse collection of  recipes and gorgeous photos tantalized me, and the very idea of the book hooked me as well.  Zabar turned the idea of the holiday cookie swap into a virtual cookie exchange with her chef-pals.  She requested favorite recipes from friends in her culinary circle;  as ideas arrived via phone, by email, or on paper napkins, she baked them up and translated ingredient lists and notes into kitchen-friendly recipes to share with avid bakers like myself my niece.

Obviously, I didn’t have the store gift wrap this book;  I needed more time with it before I gave it away.   I didn’t even have put it in the mail;  most of my extended family gathered at my parents’ house in California to celebrate the holidays.  As I wrestled with separation anxiety on Christmas Eve, I tucked the book under a sweatshirt and tried to sneak into the office/guest room at my parents’ house to photocopy a few recipes, but my niece was flopped on the bed reading right next to the printer-copier, thereby foiling my plans.

One afternoon soon after Christmas,  I returned home to my parents’ house to discover a plate of cookies that Katja had baked from her new book.  Only two of her Lemon-Poppy Seed Linzers remained, which made me love her more than ever;  not only had she left cookies for me to sample, she had started with the very recipe that I would have baked first myself.  The cookies tasted as delightful as I dreamed they would:  sweet shortbread studded with a subtle poppy-seed crunch just oozing with tangy lemon curd.  Yum.  I imagine that Katja had to fight off my extended family from the plate so she could save those cookies for me.

I could have asked to borrow her cookbook and walked it down the hall to photocopy the linzer recipe along with a few others.  Instead, I ordered my own copy and had it shipped home to Washington.   When I returned from my Christmas holiday, my cookbook awaited me, and I got to work making Lemon-Poppy Seed Linzers.

And now I’m looking forward to some virtual baking sessions with my niece in far away New Mexico.  I can’t wait to hear what she makes next.

Lemon-Poppy Seed Linzers

Adapted from One Sweet Cookie, by Tracey Zabar.

The recipe suggested using 1 1/4-inch round and 1/2-inch round cutters, but I didn’t have them.  I opted for 2-inch and 3/4-inch triangles for the first batch.  After re-rolling the scraps, I used a 2-inch square and the 3/4-inch triangle.  The recipe makes between 40 and 60 small cookies, depending on the size and shape of your cutters.  I didn’t feel like re-rolling the scraps a third time;  since I can’t bear to waste anything, I baked the centers and scrappy edges.  They tasted delicious on their own and even better dipped in the leftover lemon curd.

Poppy Seed Shortbread

12 ounces (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup poppy seeds

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter, granulated sugar, confectioners sugar, and vanilla on medium speed until light and fluffy.  Reduce speed to low and slowly add the flour and salt.  Continue to mix until well incorporated.  Slowly add poppy seeds and mix for about one minute.

Remove the dough from mixer and divide it in two.  Place one half between two sheets of parchment paper and roll it to 1/4-inch thickness.  Remove the top layer and score the dough with the larger cutter.  Set aside and repeat with the second piece of dough.  To make the cookie tops, score the centers of half of the cookie shapes with the smaller cutter.  Return top sheets of parchment and gently slide the sheets of dough onto a baking sheet.  Place in the freezer to chill for about 1 hour.

Lemon Curd Filling

1 large egg
6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
finely grated zest of 2 lemons
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
pinch of salt
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened and chopped in several pieces

Add enough water to a medium saucepan so it can boil under a metal bowl without touching the bottom of the bowl.  Remove bowl and set aside.  Boil water, then reduce heat to a simmer.

Fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside.

Whisk together egg, egg yolks, sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest, and salt in the metal mixing bowl.  Set it over the simmering water and whisk the mixture constantly until it reaches 170° F.  Immediately remove the bowl from heat, add butter, and whisk until smooth.  Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into another metal mixing bowl.  Place newly filled metal bowl over the bowl of ice water.  Let the mixture stand at room temperature until cool and thickened.

Preheat oven to 325° F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Remove the dough from the freezer and pop out the centers of cut cookie dough (combine scraps, re-roll between parchment  paper, cut shapes, and return to the freezer to bake later). Arrange cookies on prepared pans about 1/2-inch apart.  Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until light golden brown.  Cool completely on wire racks.  Pipe about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon lemon curd onto each cookie base and gently add a cookie top.  Dust cookies lightly with confectioners sugar.



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