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.