Sunday, December 28, 2008

Semolina Bread--Baking From New Christmas Cookbooks

Saturday, December 27, 2008
I got two new bread cookbooks for Christmas--Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes, by Jeffrey Hamelman and Savory Baking From the Mediterranean by Anissa Helou. I don't think that either of these books will be my go-to book on a regular basis, but they both offer recipes and techniques that will be a challenge.
Hamelman's book is probably more technique than recipes, although it's got a fair number of recipes too. The first 100 pages explain ingredients and techniques. There's a whole chapter on braiding--from the one-strand roll to the seven-strand triple-decker bread. (I don't believe I'll be doing that in this lifetime). Then there's information on "advanced braiding," in case the seven-strand bread doesn't present a challenge. Most of the breads require a poolish or biga, which means that they are two-day affairs, but that doesn't really bother me. Savory Baking has Moroccan, Algerian, Sicilian, French, Turkish, Greek, etc. recipes, some of which look pretty easy, and some of which don't. There are a lot of weird ingredients, like mastic, kopanisti, sumac, and mahlep, not to mention pigeons for pigeon pie.
The first recipe I tried--from Hamelman's Bread book, however, didn't have anything weird in it, and it's a bread I've made before in various incarnations--plain old semolina bread, made with durum flour, one of my very favorite flours. This bread required a sponge, but instead of sitting around overnight, the sponge only had to bubble a little before being mixed with the rest of the ingredients, so the bread can easily be made in one day.

Another oddity about this book is that it tells you quantities for 25 loaves, 23 loaves, or 2 loaves. The two loaves is the "home" recipe. Not surprisingly, I chose to make two loaves, which is still about one loaf more than I usually make, so I have a spare in the freezer.
Because the recipe is bigger than I'm used to making, I ran out of durum flour and had to substitute bread flour for the rest of it, so the texture and color are slightly different than previous semolina breads I've made. Hamelman is big on folding the bread while it's rising--or, as he says, durings its period of bulk fermentation. If you start talking about bulk fermentation, people may think you're knowledgeable. Or they may just think you're boring. At any rate, the dough gets prettier after it's been folded.

If I weren't such a slave to directions, I'd use my bannetons more often. I'm always excited when I find a recipe that instructs me to let the dough rise in willow bannetons because I have them, and because I love the way bread looks with the circular flour pattern on top. Sometimes I realize that I could put any bread in a banneton. I wouldn't really have to run to Target to find a 4 x 8 loaf pan--I could just put the second loaf in the banetton. But then I realize that I will never be that devil-may-care person, and at least I will continue to be happy when I run into a banneton recipe.

This is what I'm talking about. I love the way this looks.

And it looks even prettier when it comes out of the oven. Despite not having the proper amount of durum flour, the bread still had the golden hue that semolina breads have, as well as the lovely, sturdy texture--not the big holes of French or Italian bread, but not the fine, even texture of typical American bread. A real peasant bread, perfect for sopping up soup or for pairing with a hearty cheese. We did both, and we still have a loaf in the freezer for other uses.

I'll be using Bread again, and I want to try Savory Baking soon.

Christmas Day Baking

Thursday, December 25, 2008
Since I had Thanksgiving dinner, I didn't have to do Christmas. All I had to do was take wine and a dessert to Jim's sister's Betty's house, and to make breakfast. Mimosas, scrambled eggs with cheese, sausages, fruit salad, and scones--that's one of our standard Christmas breakfast (the other is Dutch Baby pancakes). My plan was to get up early and make Rose's ginger cream scones, which are easy enough to make but do require an hour in the refrigerator before baking. Since I didn't get up early, and I dawdled around with a cup of coffee or two, it was soon clear to me that the scones weren't going to get their hour of rest in the refrigerator. But they looked fine and sturdy before I put them in the oven, so I figured the hour in the refrigerator instruction was just one of Rose's perfectionist requirements. What could go wrong?

The scones were brushed with cream, sprinkled with sparkling sugar, with a few cute little red Christmas decoration thingies tossed on for good measure. I was excited--these were going to be perfect.

You're guessing they're not going to be perfect, right? You're guessing that there is a reason for Rose's nit-picky directions. You may even be guessing that maybe it wasn't such a hot idea to toss the little red doohickies on the scones before they bake because they might melt. If so, you are quite right.
I have to say this didn't even faze me. It's Christmas, after all, and what's a little imperfection among family? It didn't seem to faze anyone else, and the scones were quite good.
We opened presents, and then it was time for me to shift into high gear and make dessert. I'd spent a lot of time thinking about dessert. The truth is nobody ever really wants dessert after a big meal, especially since Betty is well known for putting out a spread of appetizers that could easily feed a pack of starving animals: meatballs, shrimp, broiled cheese and crab canapes, nuts, various dips and crackers, and cookies. This year was no exception.
Knowing this, I was aware that the idea of dessert would be met with groans, and I do not mean groans of anticipation. I mean groans of pure misery. Nevertheless, I did not choose a platter of fruit. Instead, I chose an Eggnog Pound Cake. This is from the "Simply Recipes" web site, from which I've had mixed success. The recipes are generally very homy--not necessarily sophisticated, but generally reliable as simple cooking. But did I want simple cooking? I decided that I did.
The only thing that bothered me was the plainness of the cake. Elizabeth told me she'd decorate it, and she definitely gussied it up!
She raided the dining room centerpiece of a few things--pine cones, a eucalyptus stem, and some fir--and arranged them in the center of the cake.

Everyone was extremely impressed. In fact, they did not believe I had made it myself, which I attribute to Elizabeth's decorating skills rather than to my baking ability. The cake was good, too, although, as I predicted, nobody really wanted dessert.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Christmas cookies

Sunday, December 14, 2008
My friends Cathy and JoAnne and I usually get together one day in December and turn out hundreds, maybe thousands, of cookies. It's a big, steamy, messy day and we have a lot of fun doing it. This year we couldn't find a single day that suited us all, so we ended up making them separately, then meeting for lunch and trading them. This was actually far more efficient, since we weren't standing in line for the oven and trying to figure out which cookie pan belonged to whom. Also, we all decided that we really didn't need THAT many cookies. Still, I missed the companionship of our traditional cookie day.
The cookies I decided on were two new ones: Dorie Greenspan's rugelach and a cranberry-pistachio icebox cookie from Gourmet. They are both excellent, flavorful, buttery cookies that make a great addition to a holiday cookie platter.
First, the rugelach. I love rugelach. I love the rugelach recipe in Rose's Christmas Cookie cookbook, which I've made often, but I decided to try Dorie Greenspan's recipe, which gives Rose's recipe a real run for the money. I don't know if Dorie is related to Alan, but I'm pretty sure she's done more good for the world than he has.
Her rugelach recipe has a lovely cream cheese and butter base, which comes together easily in a food processor.

The dough gets shaped into a disc and refrigerated for at least a few hours.

After that, you roll it out into a big circle. I'm kind of a whiner about rolling dough out with a rolling pin. My friend Cathy is a whiz with the rolling pin. It looks so easy when she does it. I just don't have the technique. If I were called on to do a demonstration of rolling pin skills, I'd want to use Cathy as a body double. Or an arm double anyway. Still, it worked out fine.

Well, you can see that my circle is not too circular; it's an unknown geometric shape. But it didn't much matter after I cut the dough into triangles and rolled them up.

These rugelach are brushed with melted apricot jam, then sprinkled with cinnamon-sugar, and strewn with currants, chocolate chips, and pecans. They're rolled up, brushed with an egg wash, and sprinkled with sparkly decorating sugar. They come out of the oven golden, crisp, and sparkly. Too pretty to eat. Almost.

While I was tending to the rugelach, I had the icebox cookies--which were actually delicate shortbreads--shaped into oblongs and resting in the refrigerator.

This is a thick, crumbly dough, filled with pistachios and dried cranberries, made spicy with cinnamon and citrusy with a goodly amount of orange peel. The crumbly dough doesn't necessarily want to be shaped, but it can be whapped into submission. A dough scraper is very effective at whapping.

After a few hours in the refrigerator, the dough is ready to be brushed on all four sides with an egg wash and sprinkled with sugar. I used white, red, and green sugar--I thought the red was the prettiest.

At this point, it looks like an odd glittery cucumber, but after the cookies are sliced and baked, the colored sugar is much less peculiar.

Cathy made chocolate-cherry drops and her grandmother's fabulous recipe for fruit and nut cookies. JoAnne made linzer bars and miniature black-and-white cookies. Now I have a lot of cookies. Jim has efficiently made his way through a number of them, and I've stashed some in the freezer to give away. I may have to make another batch of those rugelach this weekend, though--just to make sure I have enough to give away.
Happy holidays, everyone!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Julia Child's White Bread

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A few weeks ago, one of my fellow attorney-bakers at work looked at the Norwegian bread I blogged about. She, a Norwegian herself, told me that it looked very authentic. (She didn't mention that it looked odd, which was very tactful of her.) I admitted to her, even though I know that she is an all-natural, organic kind of person, that whole wheat bread is not my favorite. She said, to my surprise, "I know--there's nothing better than Julia Child's white bread." That started me thinking about, not surprisingly, finding Julia Child's white bread recipe, which I didn't seem to have in any of my Julia Child cookbooks, of which I have a pretty good collection.
From my internet search, I decided the recipe must be from Baking with Julia, so I googled "Baking with Julia" and "white bread" and got this recipe.
I didn't bother translating into grams or ounces because the directions called for a vague "6-7 cups flour," causing me once again to appreciate Rose's specificity. In th is recipe, you're just supposed to keep adding flour until the "dough pulls cleanly away from the sides of the bowl."

This is the point where I stopped adding flour, but I wasn't very confident that it was the exact moment.
I took it out of the bowl and did a little hand kneading so I could tell whether it felt right.

I must say it was a lovely dough--very soft and silky. The fact that it had a fair amount of butter in it must have helped.
While the dough was happily rising away, I took a side trip to Target to buy a loaf pan. I have a collection of loaf pans, none of which matches another; this recipe makes two loaves in 8" x 4" pans. I strolled the aisles of SuperTarget, which had 9 x 5, 10 x 6 and mini-pans. Apparently people only like big loaves or teeny ones. I finally found a ceramic pan of a nonstandard size. It looked like the closest to an 8 x 4, so I got it. Now I have a larger collection of mismatched pans.
I the way this bread was shaped--rolled out and folded over twice.

Then you plop it in the pan (behold my new red Target loaf pan!).

This is the bread from the new loaf pan. It's lopsided, as my loaves generally are. I remember that I learned a trick from Rose's web site that makes the bread even, but I couldn't remember what it was, and I was too lazy to go look it up.

Oh, all right. I went back and looked it up. It's in the recipe for honey oat bread, which I made last January, and the trick is that you must shape it into a log and let it rest for 20 minutes before putting it in the pan. It's apparently all about resting. I don't know why I'd forget that because I'm very much in favor of the concept of resting.

This is really good bread. This looks like the bread that wins the blue ribbon at the State Fair, if I do say so myself. I should have known that Julia would make a good loaf of white bread. I remember that when I heard she had died, I started crying. Like so many people, I learned about a new kind of cooking from her, and I made things I never would have imagined that I--who grew up on meat loaf and pot roast--could make. Here's to you Julia, and thank you for this excellent loaf of plain white bread.

P.S. I never got around to posting about our Thanksgiving dinner--both Jim and I were so busy at the last minute that neither of us remembered to take pictures of the food. He did take pictures of the rolls I made--a Gourmet magazine recipe. I had high hopes for this recipe, and the rolls were good, but not as good as the butter-dipped dinner rolls in The Bread Bible.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Speculaas (Belgian or Dutch Spice Cookies)

Saturday, November 22, 2008
Tonight is the night from Sinterklaas,
For you, I have baked some speculaas!

It's actually not the night from Sinterklaas, which is, I believe, December 5, but I did bake some speculaas, recipe courtesy of Melinda, who suggested these cookies as a project for the Lazy Bakers.
Melinda had an ulterior motive for choosing this recipe. On a recent trip to Belgium, she picked up a wooden speculaas mold, which she will use whenever she gets around to baking these. I actually looked up speculaas molds on the internet, not wanting her cookies to completely outshine mine, but 1) they were from $35 to $100+ and 2) they came with many detailed instructions on what to do if the cookie dough stuck to the mold. I immediately envisioned a process that would involve a lot of cursing and would culminate in cookies that would be fit only for giving to bad children, so I abandoned that plan.
Apparently December 6, St. Nicholas Day, is a big deal in the Low Countries. The saint heads toward Belgium and the Netherlands on a slow boat from Spain laden with cookies and other presents that he gives to good children. I believe the children leave their wooden shoes out in front of their bedroom doors, hoping that the shoes will be filled with gifts in the morning. I expect that St. Nicholas fills the shoes of both good and bad children, as Santa does in the U.S. This tradition has never caught on in the U.S. Perhaps we just can't relate to the boat from Spain idea.
I was afraid that if you didn't have the molds, you had to roll out the cookie dough, but, fortunately for me, once I got around to reading the recipe, I saw that you just shape the dough into logs, refrigerate it, and slice into rectangles. My favorite kind of cookie dough.
The recipe also directs you to cut the butter into the flour with a pastry blender or with two knives. I've tried the two-knife technique, completely without success. So whenever I see, "cut with two knives," I translate into "use the food processor."

Maybe if you have a very fine palate, you can tell the difference between dough mixed with knives and dough mixed in the food processor, but I can't. The dough's only liquid is three tablespoons of milk. I used part skim milk and part cream because I had them both, and I had to add a few more tablespoons of cream to make the dough workable.

As an aside, when Melinda first suggested this cookie, I posed an objection because of the name. I said that I didn't want to make a cookie that reminded me of a gynecological instrument, and she told me that I could call it a spice cookie instead of speculaas (some people call them speculoos). I think that speculaas and speculum both come from the same Latin root--the word for mirror--but why these dark brown cookies are named after mirrors is a mystery to me.
After the dough is shaped and refrigerated for a few hours, or overnight if you prefer,

they are sliced into one-quarter-inch slices and baked.

At this point, you may think, as I did, that they didn't look too promising. Oddly enough, they turned out to be quite attractive.

And quite delicious. Jim was an especially enthusiastic sampler of speculaas. I told him to eat whatever he wanted, because whatever was left on Monday morning was going in to work. I also gave a dozen to my friend Karen, who watched me take them out of the oven, and who was also quite taken with them. They're crisp and buttery--more like shortbread than other spice cookies I've eaten. The recipe calls for 1/4 cup of almonds. The only thing I would do differently is increase the almonds significantly because the nut's crunchiness is very good in these cookies. There may not be many left by Monday morning.

And here are Jini's pictures. Jini doesn't have a blog, although she should, but she's a good baker who likes to try new recipes. We both love to sample the food brought into the Edesia cookbook series.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Norwegian Whole-Wheat Bread

Tuesday, November 11, 2008
My book club read Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, this month--a novel about a taciturn 67-year-old widower who retreats to a rustic house in an isolated spot in Norway. I know, it sounds like a real page-turner, doesn't it? But it's a marvelous book, and beautifully written. Our book club eats well, with the host providing the main course and the rest of us filling in. It was my turn to bring bread, and I wanted to make something appropriately Norwegian.
Most of the Norwegian bread recipes I came across were for lefse. There are many Norwegians in Minnesota, and they go crazy for lefse around Christmas-time. Lefse is a potato-based flatbread that's apparently too bland even for Scandinavians in its pristine state, but they claim it's terrific if you put lots of butter and sugar on it. Or maybe it just tastes good compared to ludefisk, the other Norwegian Christmas taste treat--that's the yummy lye-cured fish. Anyway, I didn't want to make lefse (or ludefisk, for that matter).
I finally found a recipe for this Norwegian wheat bread in James Beard's Beard On Bread cookbook. According to Beard, this bread is taught in the Norwegian Government School for Domestic Science Teachers in Oslo. Sounds like a cheery bunch of folks. It's made with whole wheat, rye, and white flours, milk, yeast, and salt. He describes it as a "very dense, coarse bread full of honest flavor." The word "honest" should have given me a clue that it might be the kind of bread that seems good for you, like you will get points in heaven merely for eating it. Unlike a croissant, for example, which gives you no points, but is heavenly to eat. Beard does give fair warning that the dough will be "stiff and difficult to knead." And it was.

This dough almost killed my KitchenAid mixer, which started to groan and get over-heated after about five minutes. I took the dough out and kneaded it by hand, or attempted to knead it. I whacked it and pounded it, and it barely moved. Then I tried to shape it into a round loaf.

I could not shape this bread for the life of me. I finally decided that since it was supposed to be free-form and rustic, that's what it would be. I thought that the ladies at the Norwegian Government School for Domestic Science would not be happy with this attempt, but that Trond, the hero of the book, probably wouldn't much care. I also harbored a secret hope that it would somehow reshape itself nicely while it was baking. No such luck.
This is its most photogenic angle:

This is its least photogenic angle:

I sneaked the bread over to Sally's house in a plain brown wrapper so no one would see its deformities, and I craftily sliced it in the kitchen, away from prying eyes. It looked ... honest ... and sturdy.

If you imagined it in a sunny Norwegian kitchen, freshly sliced and slathered with sweet butter, it sounded pretty good. But if you imagined it on a dismal, gray, winter day, day-old and eaten with that nasty brown gjetost cheese, well, you could do better.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sour Cream Apple Pie

Monday, November 10, 2008
Feeling emboldened by my challah success, I thought I'd try baking a pie again. My last attempt at pie ended up in a soup bowl--it was tasty, but not lovely. I still had enough pate brisee in the freezer for another attempt. It being apple season, and with the Minnesota weather suddenly turning from summer to winter, apple pie seemed like a good bet.
I googled "apple pie" and "pate brisee" and got this sour cream apple pie from

This is an insanely rich dessert. Not only is the pate brisee itself laden with butter, but the filling, in addition to the standard apples and sugar, has two eggs and one and one-third cups of sour cream (I bypassed the low-fat sour cream in favor of Organic Valley's deliciously voluptuous sour cream.) It's topped by a mixture of sugar, butter, cinnamon, and flour. The suggested accompaniment is ginger whipped cream, which sounded pretty good to me. The Organic Valley whipping cream is so thick and yellow that it glugs, rather than pours, out of the carton.
This dessert, along with the same soup and bread I baked on Sunday, and a salad with butter lettuce, roasted pears, and pecans with a cassis vinaigrette, comprised dinner for my wonderful women's group. Becky, Cath, Joyce, Margaret, Rosemary and I have been meeting regularly for about 35 years. We started as a "consciousness-raising group," if any of you are old enough to remember that term, and we have evolved into something less doctrinaire and more warm and familiar. We've gone through births (children and grandchildren), deaths, marriages, divorces, jobs, retirement, happiness and tragedy together. The least I could do for this wonderful group of women was to bake them what turned out to be a pretty good pie.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Third Time's a Charm Challah

Sunday, November 9, 2008

I've tried making challah twice before. Both times it tasted fine, but it looked ... well, I'm not going to remind you of how it looked. Suffice it to say that if you looked at pictures of my first two attempts, you would advise me not to give up my day job.
I happened upon a group of a dozen or so bloggers who call themselves Bread Baking Babes. Their October project was a challah from The New York Times Bread and Soup Cookbook, a book I don't have but which sounds like a good idea. I think it must be out of print, though, because I've browsed many a book store's cookbook collection, and I don't remember ever seeing it.
October's recipe was from Sara at, and I thank her for this simple, delicious, and apparently foolproof recipe.
It's a shiny, sticky dough, made with a half-cup of butter, four eggs, and a touch of saffron to give it a rich, yellow hue.

It only has to rise an hour or so (I used up my first monster package of yeast mail-ordered from King Arthur on this bread, by the way, and what an economy that turned out to be! Even baking bread nearly every week, it took me two years to go through the entire bag, and, kept in the freezer, it was still going strong after all that time), and Sarah and I had a date to go shopping at the Mall of America. I just put it in the refrigerator to slow it down, and it was ready to braid three hours later, when we came home.

This is where trepidation really set in. Last time I tried challah, I attempted a four-strand braid, but I got so confused I had to keep unbraiding it and trying again. It didn't look pretty. This time I was going to practice with Play-Doh, but that turned out to be unnecessary. This challah is a double-decker version: a bottom three-plaited layer, topped by the same thing, only smaller. It looks fancy, but it's easy.

Brushed with an egg wash and sprinkled with poppy seeds, it looks like someone who knows what she's doing made it, rather than all-thumbs BBC.

After I stacked the layers neatly, I slid the pan in the oven. 18 minutes later, I turned on the oven light, afraid of what I might see. Had the top layer fallen off? Had the whole thing exploded? (I do have an abnormal fear of things exploding, even though, as far as I know, challah is not in the habit of exploding).
Anyway, no and no. It still looked pretty.

Maybe not perfect, but pretty. As a bonus, this recipe makes two loaves of bread. I made the second one without poppy seeds, just to be devil-may-care.

To be perfectly honest, the top layer of the second loaf slid to the side while baking, so it can only be viewed from one angle. From its best side, though, it still looks shiny and pretty. Not to be too pleased with myself, but I do like the way they turned out.
We had the lopsided one for dinner, with a very good beef and wild rice soup with root vegetables. My cameraman forgot to take pictures of the soup, but he ate it up, along with the bread, which he pronounced quite satisfactory.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Election Day Apple Cake

Or: "The Laziest Baker Finally Gets Around to Making Smitten Kitchen's Mother's Best Apple Cake in the World."
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It was Evil Cake Lady's turn to choose a project for The Lazy Baker's No Rules Club. She went to prolific blogger SmittenKitchen for inspiration and found Mom's Apple Cake.
Pinknest tried her hand at the apple cake first; then Evilcakelady. Finally, came Melinda's version, which she tarted up a bit with a homemade caramel sauce and a fancy pan she bought in Bruges. Melinda expressed great happiness at beating me to the apple cake punch, but I have finally caught up with the crowd.
This is an easy cake. The only thing that takes any times is peeling, coring, and chopping the six apples. (SmittenKitchen's mom used Macintosh--an odd choice for baking, I thought--and I thought I'd use a couple of those old favorites as a tribute to her mother, but my local grocery didn't even have any.) I used a combination of Yellow Delicious and Honeycrisp.

The batter is thick, made with flour, sugar, oil, vanilla, cinnamon, orange juce, and eggs. I nearly rebelled at the cup of oil. Why can't I use butter? I asked myself. Butter would make it so much more flavorful. But I decided to ignore the Butter-is-better voice and use canola oil because, after all, we are supposed to be making the same recipe.
The cake is layered in a tube pan:
Batter, apples, batter, apples.

If you are wondering what that pink thing on the tube pan is, it's a Rose's Heavenly Cake Strip, which acts as an insulator for a cake pan and keeps the cake from over-browning. I got it from the real Rose herself.

It was a good thing to have because this cake is supposed to bake for 90 minutes, and I was afraid that there would be more than a few burned apples on top of the cake by that time, but I took the cake out of the oven after about 75 minutes and it was fine.

So why did it take me so long to bake this cake--a relatively simple project--when I am normally so obsessive about getting things done promptly? I had a plan for this cake. I really did not want to be faced with an entire cake, and the prospect that Jim and I might greedily devour it ourselves, as we often do with a loaf of bread. This cake called for a potluck. Like, say, an election party. What is more American than an apple cake, after all (except for apple pie)? Surely a substantial amount of cake would be eaten while we were watching the returns, limiting the potential damage to me and my desire to emulate the skinny French women wearing fashionable suits.
It was an exciting night. One of the people at the party declared herself too excited to eat. I personally have never reached such a state of excitement, and, fortunately, it was not shared by others.

We ate the cake. No homemade caramel sauce at this party, but a choice between an accompaniment of cinnamon or vanilla bean ice cream, dished out at about the same time that CNN called Ohio for Obama. The cake would have tasted sweet even if I had forgotten the sugar.
It was a wonderful night. And remainders of the cake were taken into work on Wednesday, where they were happily devoured.
Now, was this really the best apple cake ever? It is comfort cake--cinnamony, moist, and tender, with the apples retaining a bit of texture and with the crunchy counterpoint of walnuts. But I still think it might be better with butter.
In my newfound spirit of nonpartisanship, however, I can generously praise this cake, made without a hint of butter.