Saturday, December 29, 2007

Holiday Baking

Saturday, December 29, 2007
It's very late in the day, or in the year, to talk about holiday baking, but since Jim has been dutifully taking pictures, I might as well write something about them before the next holiday comes around.
My first baking foray was the annual Cookie Baking Day, in which two friends and I use obscene amounts of butter to turn out ridiculous amounts of cookies. Jim is the official taster, an honor which he is able to keep because he gets a very thoughtful expression on his face while he's eating each cookie, then says he needs to check another one to make sure of his judgment, and always pronounces each cookie to be good.
We used to each make three different kinds of cookies, which resulted in too many even to give away, and by New Year's Day, we ended up tossing them out for the squirrels. All the neighborhood squirrels congregated in our yard on New Year's morning, waiting for the feast. This year we each baked two different kinds, and there aren't many left. I'm hoping that the squirrels won't stage a rebellion.
I made Trios, a variation on the classic thumbprint cookie.

This recipe is from December's Gourmet Magazine, and you can find it at I doubled the recipe and made the dough the night before. In the morning, I took the dough out of the refrigerator and weighed it, then divided the weight by however many cookies it was supposed to make (72, I think). I learned through this clever mathematical trick that each cookie should be made with 18 grams of dough, and each 18-gram piece is divided into three balls which are then flattened slightly and put on the baking sheet touching in the middle, so they'll come together when they bake.
Some of my cookies were not turning out even, though, so I decided to weigh out 6-gram units, so that all the balls would be uniform. This is the kind of thing you don't do when you have little kids running around the house, but now I have no one but Jim, and he doesn't care if I spend my mornings weighing out cookie balls. After the three balls are placed on the cookie sheet, you take the end of a wooden spoon, dip it in flour, in make a hole in each little-bitty dough ball. Then you fill one little hole with raspberry jam, one with strawberry, and one with apricot. If you don't like to do things like this, you would run out of the house screaming by this point. If you do, you'd find it quite satisfying.
Cathy made some lime-coconut meringues.

This is the first time any of us have ever attempted meringues, which turned out to be not that difficult, at least for Cathy, but she has a knack for cookies. Since Jim doesn't like coconut, we told him that he didn't have to taste these, but he gamely ate one, then two, and declared that he liked them despite the coconut. In fact, he claimed that perhaps he was starting to like coconut, just because of these cookies. This made Cathy very happy. So happy that she started rolling out hundreds of very thin shortbread circles and stars, to make raspberry shortbread sandwich cookies. She used her homemade raspberry jam, which is better than anything you can buy in a store.

JoAnne, the third cookie baker, made some pretty and zingy lemon cornmeal stars and some rich, delicious walnut bars. Here they are on a plate, along with Cathy's finished raspberry shortbread sandwich cookies:

My second cookie was the World Peace cookie.

This cookie has been quite a hit on the blogosphere this year. I got the recipe from Lynn Rossetto Kaspar's Splendid Table website, but it's originally from one of Dorie Greenspan's books, and she got it from Pierre Herme, a French baker. The idea is that these cookies are so good that if everybody ate them every day, we would have world peace. It's a charming notion, although with recent events in Pakistan, it appears that something more than even a very good cookie would be required for peace to occur. The cookies are intensely chocolatey, with both cocoa and bits of dark chocolate. The chocolate flavor is complemented with fleur de sel, and a bite with the flavor combination of chocolate and salt is, oddly, quite fantastic.
We also made chocolate cupcakes for Christmas. I found a recipe for dark chocolate cupcakes made with sour cream, which is a Cook's Illustrated version, via a Seattle blog. I also made a vanilla bean cheesecake with cranberry jewel topping, but the cupcakes turned out cuter.

We used Martha Stewart's recipe for vanilla meringue buttercream icing, which was very light and fluffy, but a little too sweet, and my vanilla bean cheesecake turned out to have a massive crack in the center.

Once the crack was covered with the shiny cranberry glaze, it was not noticeable, but Jim didn't take any pictures of that. The cheesecake was pretty good, but the cupcakes seemed more popular.
My other cooking assignment was to bring rolls. I made Peter Reinhart's plain white rolls, which turned out fine, and are very pretty, but are not quite as tender and flavorful as Rose's version. I just shaped them into individual round rolls--they would make adorable hamburger buns for the miniature hamburgers that are so popular as appetizers. I bought a quart of buttermilk, intending to make the buttermilk version, but I forgot that that was my plan until after I'd already added the dried milk.

Thus endeth the Christmas baking. But not the baking. Last night my brother Bruce, his wife, Julie, their kids, Doug and Marina, and Doug's wife Ellie came for dinner. Sarah and her boyfriend James were also here, and Elizabeth. We baked cupcakes again for dessert. This time, they had buttermilk in them because I had a quart of buttermilk to use up. We had regular-size and super-size.

I got The Cake Bible for Christmas, and we frosted these with Rose's Neo-classic Mocha Buttercream. The frosting was amazing! Except for whipped cream, I don't particularly like frosting. I usually scrape off as much as I reasonably can. But this frosting was heavenly. As God is my witness, I will never mix powdered sugar and butter again!
Finally, one more loaf of bread--the Almost No-Knead whole wheat bread, made just like the almost no-knead basic loaf, but with one cup of whole wheat flour substituted for one cup of white flour and 2 tablespoons of honey added. Again, this revised no-knead version turned out beautifully, with virtually no work involved.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Cranberry-Pecan Almost No-Knead Bread

December 16, 2007

My friend Mary invited Jim and me for dinner last night for some pheasant that she had been given by a hunter. I put the "pheasant" and "hunter" part out of my mind because I didn't want to think about the poor bird being shot, and accepted. I offered to bring bread, and told her I was working on this almost no-knead bread and gave her a choice among the four variations. She chose cranberry-pecan, which made me quite happy.
When we got to Doug and Mary's house, I mentioned my reservations about the dead pheasants, and Doug assured me that pheasants were extremely stupid and did not even notice when they were shot. Moreover, he said, they were so moronic that they couldn't even make it through a Minnesota winter. They would freeze to death, he claimed, and were much better off being shot. Anyway, he added, going on the offensive, why was I being so sensitive about pheasants when I represented murderers? Well, I said, that's completely different.
The pheasant was quite good. Mary served it with a fruity, winey sauce, along with a cranberry relish and a dish of lentils, brown rice, and caramelized onions. Even though we had cranberry relish and a fruity sauce, the cranberry-pecan bread was just right with the dinner--not too much fruit at all.
Dessert was a sweet potato-candied ginger pie that Doug made himself. Men always demand (and get) so much credit when they cook, but it was good pie.

After two weeks in a row of The America's Test Kitchen No-Knead Bread 2.0, I've decided it really is an excellent recipe, and the cranberry-pecan version is just as good as the basic white bread recipe. The only difference is adding 1/3 cup each of pecans and dried cranberries with the dry ingredients. I used more--at least 1/2 cup each, because I wanted to have it bursting with the dried fruit and nuts. This time I used about 1/3 cup of sourdough starter instead of the vinegar, and it added a more complex flavor than the vinegar alone. I had to steal a bottle of beer from a party I went to Friday night in order to get the bread started on Friday night. Unfortunately for Jim, it was Miller Lite, and he drew the line at drinking the rest of that, so I have most of a bottle of Miller Lite in the refrigerator. I guess I'll have to bake another loaf of bread.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Almost No-Knead Bread

November 9, 2007

Remember last year about this time when Mark Bittman's No-Knead Bread swept the country? It was easy to make, it made a beautiful loaf with a fabulously crispy crust, and it was endlessly adaptable? Then, after the initial enthusiasm, remember the nay-sayers, who pointed out that, with all its virtues, the no-knead bread was not the tastiest bread on the block?
Even if you don't remember this, J. Kenji Alt, does, and in this month's Cook's Illustrated, Alt set out to discover if he could make a better-tasting no-knead bread. Cook's Illustrated, as you probably know, is the magazine from America's Test Kitchen, where the food testers helpfully (some might say obsessively) work on a particular recipe, going through dozens of variations until they believe they have come up with the best possible result. This is a magazine that appeals to the kind of person who, say, decides to bake all the breads in a certain cookbook in one year or, say, writes a novel in a month. As soon as I saw the article entitled "No-Knead Bread 2.0," I knew what this week's bread would be.
Alt's theory is that the lack of kneading in no-knead bread kept the proteins in a "semi balled-up state," thus making the bread "overly chewy." He was aiming for a more flavorful bread with a more airy texture. He decided to add a brief period (15 seconds) of hand kneading after the first long rise, which he decided was crucial for both shape and taste. He made a few other variations as well.
He wanted the complexity of flavor that you get from a sourdough starter, but he didn't want to use one because, after all, that would kind of defeat the purpose of the simplicity of the no-knead bread. So he added a tablespoon of vinegar. I had my doubts about this because, as the bread was baking, the vinegar smell was very pronounced, and I was afraid I'd end up biting into a piece of bread that tasted like salad dressing. Fortunately, I couldn't taste it in the bread. Since I have a starter, however, the next time I make this bread, I'll omit the vinegar and add a dollop or two of starter.
He added another flavor enhancer, as well--beer, and in a side note, he explains why beer improves bread's flavor, and why the beer should be a light lager and not a darker, richer beer. All you need is three ounces of lager for a loaf of bread, which leaves most of a bottle of beer for some other purpose. I personally don't care much for beer, but Jim was happy to drink the rest of it.

Alt's other modifications involved slightly less hydration, to make the bread easier to handle and easier to shape, and a much simpler method of transferring the dough into a very hot Dutch oven. He suggests doing the second rise in a ten-inch skillet which has first been lined with a big piece of parchment paper. When the bread is ready to go in the Dutch oven, you just pick up the parchment by its edges and transfer the dough, along with the parchment, into the preheated Dutch oven.
Jim was entranced by this bread, which he pronounced the best-looking one I'd ever turned out, and took dozens of pictures. When we cut into the bread, we were also very pleased with the texture, the crust, and, most importantly, the taste.

We were going to eat it with some cheese, but decided that we really didn't want to mask the flavor with anything. The article includes several variations, including an olive, rosemary and parmesan loaf, a cranberry-pecan loaf, as well as rye and whole wheat variations. I'll probably end up trying them all.
If you're looking for a basic, easy loaf of bread, this is probably it. It is tastier than the original no-knead version, and prettier too. It's not the absolutely most delicious bread I've ever eaten, but when I woke up this morning and remembered that I could have a piece for breakfast, I felt happy. You can't get a much better review than that.
Almost No-Knead Bread
3 c. (15 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 t. instant yeast
1 1/2 t. table salt
3/4 c. plus 2 T. (7 oz.) room-temperature water
1/4 c. plus 2 T. (3 oz.) mild-flavored lager
1 T. white vinegar

1. Whisk flour, yeast, and salt in large bowl. Add water, beer, and vinegar. Fold mixture until shaggy ball forms. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 8 to 18 hours.
2. Transfer dough to lightly floured work surface and knead 10 to 15 times. Shape dough into ball. Transfer dough, seam-side down, to parchment-lined 10-inch skillet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until dough has doubled in size, about 2 hours.
3. About 30 minutes before baking, place 6- to 8-quart heavy-bottomed Dutch oven on lowest rack, and preheat oven to 500 degrees. Make one slash along top of dough. Take preheated pot out of oven and remove lid. Pick up dough by the edges of the parchment and ease into pot. Put lid back on and place in oven. Reduce temerature to 425 and bake, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove lid and turn pan 180 around for more even browning. Bake another 20 to 30 minutes, until loaf is deep brown. Transfer to wire rack and cool.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Oatmeal Bread

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Rose mentioned making Jeffrey Hammelman's oatmeal bread for her father a few weeks ago, and that mention made me want to make a loaf myself. I googled "Jeffrey Hammelman's oatmeal bread" in hopes of finding the recipe, but no luck. I checked it on, where I was able to open the book on line and actually find the recipe, but it makes about 40 or 50 loaves, which was about 39 or 49 more than I wanted. We were in the middle of a blizzard, so I couldn't run out to a bookstore and find the book, so I had to give up (temporarily, at least) on making that particular oatmeal bread.
I found one in Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, by Deborah Madison, one of my favorite cookbooks. It seemed simple enough. I modified it a little to include some white whole wheat flour, which I've been wanting to try, and I used some organic five-grain cereal mix instead of oatmeal, but it's basically one of those recipes where you just dump everything in, mix it up, and let it rise.
I hated this dough. I couldn't get it right. I'd add a little more flour, and it became a hard, tough, rock-like ball. I'd add a little more milk or water, and it just became gluey. It was also exceedingly ugly. The recipe calls for a cup of wheat bran, which made the dough a particularly disgusting shade of brown. I also had a hard time shaping it, so that both ends looked like massive belly buttons.

Still, I persevered. I let it rise three times, twice in the bowl and once in the pan, instead of the two times specified in the original recipe. The extra rising seemed to aerate it enough so that it was not just a leaden mass. In fact, despite its not-at-all promising beginnings, it was actually quite good. The repulsive brown became a lovely golden tan, and the oatmeal mixture that I rolled the dough in gave it a rustic prettiness and a nice crunch.
I don't know about Jeffrey Hammelman's oatmeal bread, but Deborah Madison's is the ugly duckling of breads.

Oatmeal Bread

1 1/4 cup warm milk
1/4 cup honey
2 T. butter
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1 cup rolled oats or five-grain cereal mix (first ingredient should be oats)
1 cup wheat bran
1 to 2 cups all-purpose flour
2 t. instant yeast
1 1/2 t. salt
Additional oats for top

1. Warm milk, butter, and honey together. Set aside.
2. Mix flours, oats, bran, and yeast in mixing bowl with dough hook.
3. Gradually add milk mixture to flour mixture.
4. Add salt.
5. Knead for at least five minutes in mixer or by hand. Dough is supposed to be firm but a little tacky, although it might be unpromising at this point.
6. Put dough in oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap.
7. When dough doubles in size, put it onto a floured counter, stretch into a rectangle, and give it a business letter turn.
8. Let it rise again until doubled, 45 minutes to an hour.
9. Preheat oven to 375 (350 convection).
10. Shape dough into loaf, and roll with additional oats or cereal mixture. Put in loaf pan until doubled.
11. Bake about 40 minutes, turning the pan after 20 minutes.
12. Turn loaf onto rack and let cool. (If oats fall off the top of the loaf, just scoop them up and pat them back on top).