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.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

King Arthur Semolina Rye Bread

Sunday, November 2, 2008
Sarah and I have been back from Paris for a few weeks, but I haven't gotten around to blogging. For one thing, I saw all those beautiful women in Paris, none of whom seemed to have an extra ounce on her, and I got enthusiastic--briefly--about losing some of my own extra ounces, not to mention pounds. So no baking. Although, I have to say that none of those beautiful, thin French women seemed to be dieting.

That is not a beautiful French woman; it's my beautiful daughter, looking very French.
I had good intentions of taking pictures of food. But then I got so enraptured with eating it that I never wanted to bother taking pictures. And it did not escape my intention that no one else was taking pictures of their food. After I had already caused some raised eyebrows with my mangling of the French language, it seemed a little gauche to bring out the camera.

This is the best I can do--numerous wine glasses, and, if you look very carefully, you can see a basket of bread.
We had a fabulous time, and it was so much fun seeing the city with Sarah, who had never been there before, is very enthusiastic, and loves to eat good food and drink good wine, both of which we had in abundance. I was musing about how if something happened to Jim, maybe I would like to find a nice Frenchman who had a lovely apartment in Paris and who spoke good English.
"Um, but Mom," Sarah said, "aren't French men supposed to be sort of ... jerks?"
"Maybe as a rule," I said, "but not this one."
"Are you sure?"
"Sarah, do you know what he says to me?"
"He says, "'Marie, tu est parfait.'"
Well, she had to admit he sounded pretty good. I was getting a little irritated at Jim, who has never once told me I was parfait, or even perfect, but then I realized I had to cut him a little slack since I'd made up my French second husband out of whole cloth.

But after a while, the memory of all those svelte French women faded away, and I decided I would lose weight at some later time. Anyway, would eats more bread than the French? It's clearly not bread that is the culprit.
(I wasn't totally away from my oven last week--I baked a big pan of brownies and three dozen oatmeal raisin cookies for the volunteers at the Minneapolis Obama headquarters, but I forgot to take pictures. They were good, though). The King Arthur brownie recipe is excellent.
In fact, it was the King Arthur brownie recipe that led me to the bread I made this weekend. I had been trying to decide whether to bake a rye bread or a semolina bread, so when I saw the recipe for Chewy Semolina Rye Bread, I knew that was the Bread of the Week.
The bread calls for three flours: rye, semolina (I used durum--maybe the coarser semolina would have worked better here), and bread flour, along with a little sugar, olive oil, water, yeast, and vital wheat gluten. The only change I made was to substitute caraway seeds for dried onion flakes. (Because rye bread isn't rye bread without caraway seeds, in my opinion, and I have a food-snobbish objection to dried onion flakes).
This is a much easier bread to make than Rose's rye bread recipes or her recipes using durum wheat flour, but the extra steps in her recipes more than pay off. This bread was good--it's pretty hard to have a loaf of freshly baked bread that doesn't have something to recommend it--but it's definitely not a great bread.
All the ingredients are mixed together and kneaded briefly. (Rose's recipes generally call for longer kneading, less yeast, slower rising, and more periods of rest). It rises only once in the bowl, for only about an hour.
Then it's shaped, and it rises again for another hour or so. (Rose's breads usually have a total of three rises).

Then, after it's risen, you cover it quickly with an egg wash, slash it, and bake it.

After I made my first slash, I realized that the bread already was forming a natural slash lengthwise down the middle of the loaf, and that I should have just emphasized that. But it was too late for thinking.

It was nice to have a loaf of fresh bread again. But the delicate taste of durum flour, which is what I love about it, was totally overwhelmed by the rye flour and caraway seeds, which is, after all, what I love about rye bread. But, as it turned out, there seemed to be no particular advantage to mixing the two; I was hoping that the combination would somehow be synergistic, but no such luck. Even though I used my burst-of-steam gadget, this loaf was not a good crusty loaf of bread--its crust was more like that of a sandwich loaf than a peasant loaf. It was chewy and it tasted good, but it was not the spectacular bread I was hoping for.