Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Cardamom-Scented (Sandwich) Bread

I'll admit that I was initially attracted to this bread because I have three containers of cardamom in my pantry: ground, seeds, and pods. I don't use enough cardamom in a year to use these up, but I do love it. I was also getting a little tired of the White Mountain Bread that I make each week for sandwiches (it's plain and simple--and my husband loves it). I wanted to try something new, so I figured, why not try something that would help me use some of those underutilized pantry elements?

First, though, I had to halve this recipe (what you see below is the halved version). The written recipe made 4 loaves--not only do I not have that many loaf pans, but there are two people in my house (and a very small freezer)--making the full recipe was not an option. Then I found my little ziploc of cardamom pods, seeded them, and crushed the seeds in the beautiful mortar and pestle I bought at Anthropologie (a wedding gift to myself--leave it to me to buy kitchen equipment during my bachelorette party). Even though I didn't need to add them to the batter for awhile, I just kept walking by the kitchen and lifting the bowl to smell them--trust me, the ground stuff ain't got nothin on freshly crushed cardamom. I couldn't believe how little the recipe used, but from a disastrous chai-spiced apple pie experience a few years ago, I knew better than to add more. Like nutmeg, cardamom is best used in small amounts. I also did not add the egg glaze before baking--we were running out of eggs--but I think that the next time I make this I will, as it will finish the bread and indicate that it is something special, not your ordinary sandwich loaf.

As far as this loaf's merits as sandwich bread--the jury's still out. My husband eats it happily (I think, or else he's learned not to complain) but I honestly have not found sandwich fillings that the cardamom doesn't compete with. It looks like sandwich bread, but I wonder if I were to shape this into a free-form loaf and glaze it if that might not suit it better--to be treated as a special occasion bread like challah (which, incidentally, actually makes good sandwich bread, if my previous post and many restaurants in Atlanta, where I first got on my challah kick, are any indication).

Give it a try--it smells amazing, and I bet as buttered toast with morning tea or as an elegant French toast with a spiced syrup, this would be heavenly. But for a turkey sandwich, I'd stick with plain and simple.

Cardamom-Scented Bread

(adapted from Beth Hensperger's Bread Bible)

Makes two 9 X 5-inch loaves.

2 cups boiling water

1/2 cup plus 1/3 cup instant nonfat dry milk powder

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 tablespoon salt

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup warm water (105-115 degrees)

1 tablespoon (1 package) active dry yeast

pinch of sugar

5 cardamom pods

6 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour (or a mixture)

For glaze: (this recipe is not halved since it's tough to use half an egg)

1 large egg yolk or 1 large egg, at room temperature

1 tablespoon milk or cream

2 tablespoons poppy seeds

In the workbowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large mixing bowl and a whisk), combine the boiling water, dried milk, butter, salt, and sugar. Stir until the butter melts, then let to mixture cool to lukewarm, about half an hour.

Pour the warm water into a small bowl. sprinkle the yeast across the top and add a pinch of sugar. Stir to dissolve and let sit until foamy, about 10 minutes.

Remove the seeds from the cardamom pods and crush with a mortar and pestle or place them under a piece of waxed or parchment paper and crush with a rolling pin. Set aside.

Add 2 cups of the flour, the cardamom seeds, and the yeast mixture to the milk and butter mixture in the large bowl. Beat hard until smooth and creamy, about 2 or 3 minutes. (If you are not using a stand mixer, switch from a whisk to a wooden spoon as the dough gets stiff.) Add the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until a soft, shaggy dough forms and just clears the sides of the bowl.

Switch to the dough hook or turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until dough is smooth but not dry, about 5 to 8 minutes. If it is sticking you may add more flour, but only 1 tablespoon at a time, to prevent the bread from drying out.

Place the dough in a deep, well-greased container, turn once to coat, and allow it to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1-2 hours.

Grease two 9x5 inch loaf pans and set aside. Gently deflate the dough and divide it with a knife or bench scraper into 2 equal portions. Shape them into rectangular loaves and place them in the pans. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow to rise until they are about 1 inch over the edge of the pans, about an hour.

20 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. With a serrated knife, make 1/4-inch (decorative) incisions in the tops of the loaves. Brush them with the egg glaze. Place them in the center of the oven and bake for about 40 minutes or until they are browned and sound hollow when tapped wih our finger. Transfer the loaves immediately to a cooling rack and allow to cool before slicing.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sweet Vanilla Challah

Comfort. It can describe so many things. A favorite old blanket. Your husband's college sweatshirt. Your mom's chicken soup--even if it came out of a red and white can. I was talking with some friends at lunch today--we tried a new Lebanese restaurant in town--and we noticed that, regardless of origin, there is something about comfort food that registers as just that--"comfort." I didn't know what Lebanese food was before today, but I knew, biting into a slice of dough-topped casserole stuffed with ground meat lightly seasoned with tomato and cinnamon, that this was comfort. Add some hummus and warm, soft pita, and the rain and thunder that had been threatening since I woke up slowly faded away.

It can be anything, comfort. If post-10 am cappucinos got you through that difficult finals week your senior year of college, no matter how gauche it might seem in Italy, you'll continue to drink cappucinos at any time of day, whenever you need the assurance that you can indeed make it through. Yet I think it is no accident that most coffee shops also sell freshly baked bread, muffins, cookies, or cakes. Some people refer to that fifth taste (beyond the salty, sweet, sour, and bitter that your tastebuds register) as umami, which translates loosely as "delicious essence." It is found in breads, its fragrance taken in through the nose and translated into a complex and hearty flavor. Coffee shops, then, have a perfect balance of bitter and sweet scents, complicated and clarified by the earthy presence of umami. Perhaps this is also why I prefer to bake bread in the morning--I can have my warm cup of coffee next to me as I stir, knead, and bake. As Nigella Lawson says, "We're all trying to achieve balance in life, and it's easier to come by in the kitchen than anywhere else."What are your kitchen comforts? What practices make your time spent cooking and baking not only pleasurable, but necessary? Coffee while baking, wine while cooking would have to be mine. And time of day: baking in the morning or late at night, cooking mid-afternoon and evening. (Well, I can bake any time of day, but those are my favorites.)

This weekend, after I turned in the last of my seminar papers for my entire grad school career, after struggling with a computer and jump drive that insisted on erasing six hard-fought pages of one, after too little sleep and too much thought, I could finally sit still. I could wake up free on Saturday morning, knowing I would never feel that same kind of deadline again--the deadline of an assignment that, while certainly and important and worthwhile, was not directly related to the research I wanted to do. Now I can devote myself entirely to food and cookbook study, and I decided to begin by studying a new kind of bread for me: an egg bread.

I chose to fill the house that Saturday with the smell of sweet, salty, bready vanilla. My husband, not usually a fan of baked goods, could not stop commenting on how good it smelled. (I think he even went outside a few times just so he could come back in and the smell would be newly potent again.) When the gorgeous, shiny, egg-washed loaves came out of the oven and sat in their coiled splendor on the cooling racks, we both repeatedly walked by and casually set our hands on top of the loaves, willing them to cool down as quickly as possible. When we finally cut into one it was everything its smell had promised: delicate and hearty, the moist rich yellow of a butter cake but somehow less sweet and more tempting. We immediately set a few pieces to dry out for french toast the following morning and debated how to use the rest. It worked as sandwich bread for grilled chicken, dessert, morning toast. We still have another loaf that is, unfortunately, going stale, but no worries: it will be reborn in a trifle, a pudding, or perhaps a creation that has yet to be imagined. If anything can inspire, this can.

Sweet Vanilla Challah
(adapted from Beth Hensperger's Bread Bible)

Makes two turban-shaped loaves.

1 tablespoon (1 package) active dry yeast
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
6 1/2-7 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or bread flour (I prefer a mixture)
1 3/4 cups hot water (120 degrees)
4 large eggs at room temperature, lightly beaten
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the glaze: (this will make just enough to glaze both loaves)
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. sugar

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl and a whisk) combine the yeast, sugar, salt, and 2 cups of the flour. Add the hot water, eggs, oil, and vanilla. Beat hard until smooth, about 3 mins., scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally. Add the remaining flour, a 1/2 cup at a time, until the dough becomes very stiff. (If mixing by hand, switch to a wooden spoon when you can no longer whisk and stop stirring, well, when it's too stiff to stir.)

Switch to the dough hook and knead for 3-4 mins. until the dough is smooth, springy, and springs back when pressed. It should show a layer of blisters under the skin. You can then transfer it to a lightly floured surface and knead a few times by hand, or transfer it directly to an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap to let it rise. (If kneading by hand, allow 4-5 minutes and look for the same indicators as above.)

Place dough in a well-oiled bowl, turning once to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 1/2-2 hours.

Grease or spray (or parchment line) two baking sheets or springform pans (that can fit in the oven at the same time, preferably on the same shelf). Spray the counter with nonstick spray (or lightly flour it, but I find the nonstick spray method helps the dough not to dry out). Gently deflate the dough by turning it onto the counter. Divide it into two equal portions with a knife or dough scraper. (Mark off 30 inches long on the counter with tape using a ruler if you don't trust your ability to eyeball it. You'll get more used to it with practice.) Roll each portion of dough into a smooth rope about 30 inches long, with one end a few inches wider than the other. (I found it easier to stretch the dough on one end, then roll to smooth it out, as stretching helped one end to stay wide.) Anchor the wider end on your surface and wind the rest around it, forming a turban shape. Pinch the end and tuck it under. Place the coils, swirl pattern up, on baking sheets. let rise until almost doubled, about 40 mins. (The eggs in the dough will help it continue to rise in the oven.)

Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Make the glaze by whisking the glaze ingredients together in a small bowl. Gently brush the surfaces of the loaves generously with the glaze, but do be sure not to overdo it--the glaze will make just enough for the two loaves. Place the baking pans on the center rack of the oven and bake for 40-45 mins., until they turn a deep golden brown and sound hollow when tapped with a finger. Carefully lift them off baking sheets and place on a cooling rack. Cool completely before serving.

These make excellent toast, French toast, bread pudding, or snacks by themselves or with a little butter. They are slightly sweet, though the sweetness is mostly in the aroma rather than the taste. We used them to make grilled chicken sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, and a bit of mayo and dijon mustard and they were fantastic.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cuban Bread

My husband is a genius with pig. Anything pig--ribs, shoulder, you name it, he can make it delicious. He recently made barbecue (check out his blog, From the Forecastle to the Masthead, for more about this process) and after having a few friends over to enjoy barbecue sandwiches, we had some pulled pork left over--the best part. Since he is also obsessed with all things Cuban--probably resulting from a Hemingway fascination we share--we decided to make Cubanos. If you haven't tried them before, you must: long slices of bread with a thin, flaky crust, layered with mustard, pickles, ham, pulled pork, and swiss cheese, pressed until golden and crispy--they are truly amazing. I decided that this would be the perfect opportunity to try baking a new type of bread: Cuban Bread. But I couldn't find a recipe in any of my baking books so I turned to the Internet--what did we ever do in the kitchen without it? I guess I am straying a bit from the point of my blog, which was to work through the baking books already on my shelves, but whatever. Comment about this if you like, but try to bread first.

I found a recipe by Betsy Oppenneer, author of The Bread Bible (not to be confused with Beth Hensperger's Bread Bible, which is probably my favorite bread resource, though both are very good). I decided this was acceptable, since I've been wanting her books although I don't own them yet. Turns out that Cuban bread really isn't all that different from other loaf breads, like French or Italian, but that instead of preheating the oven before putting the loaves in to make a thicker, cruncy crust, Cuban bread goes in the oven before preheating so the loaf cooks differently, resulting in a thinner, flakier, crispier crust. This is one of the fastest breads to bake--I finished it in a few hours while doing laundry. It's also a fat-free bread, which means that it tastes good but goes stale quickly. She said it would be good only for a day, but we found that it was still sandwich-soft for three days, and after that, oh, what excellent bread pudding. But that's another post.

Here are the components of our Cubanos, from pork to bread.

Seriously, is anything more beautiful?

This is the loaf just before it went in the oven--gorgeous and pillowy.

Rustic. Homemade. Simple. Delicious.

Cuban Bread

You proof this one (like the Dark and Dangerous Cinnamon Buns) in the oven above a pan of boiling water. This helps the bread rise prior to the actual baking, and keeps it moist in the oven, important again since there is no fat.

1 scant tablespoon or 1 package active dry yeast
2 cups warm water (105 degrees to 115 degrees)
1 teaspoon salt

4 1/2 to 5 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

In a large bowl, soften the yeast in the water. (Just so this in the bowl of the standing mixer if you're using one.)

Add the salt and 3 cups of the flour. Beat vigorously with the paddle attachment (or a dough whisk or wooden spoon).

Gradually add more of the remaining flour, 1/4 cup at a time, until the dough forms a mass and begins to pull away from the side of the bowl. Switch to the dough hook (or turn the dough out onto a floured work surface). Knead, adding more flour, a little at a time as necessary, about 6 to 10 minutes (depending on method and vigor), or until you have a smooth, elastic dough and blisters begin to develop on the surface.

Put the dough into a lightly oiled bowl (if you want to keep it fat-free, use cooking spray). Turn to coat the entire ball of dough with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly oiled work surface and knead it into a ball. Put the dough on a well-greased baking sheet and flatten it slightly so that is about 3 inches high. Make 3 slits in the top of the loaf, about 1/4 inch deep and 2 inches apart.

Pour 1 cup of boiling water into a shallow pan and put the pan on the lower shelf of an unheated oven. put the dough on the shelf above, wait 10 minutes, then turn the oven to 400 degrees. Bake the bead for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the internal temperature reaches 200 degrees.
Immediately remove from the baking sheet and cool on a rack. Allow it to cool completely before slicing.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Molten Chocolate Babycakes

If you've wondered about the photograph of chocolate cake to the right of the screen, this is the recipe. It comes by way of Nigella Lawson (to whom it came by way of James McNair) and I admit, I did not make it. My husband made me these cakes for my birthday--my first birthday after we were married this past summer. I will also tell you this: he hates to bake. As meticulous as he is in his daily life, the measuring and counting baking demands frustrate him, since (I've decided) the kitchen is where he can exercise creativity with almost complete liberty. No dissertation formatting, no MLA v. Chicago debates, no worries about academic tone. I meanwhile am constantly fascinated at the ability to transform ingredients that do not taste good on their own into something that is beautiful and sensually pleasing. I enjoy even the most labor-intensive process as long as the final product smells and tastes wonderful. (I only feel frustrated when my work is pleasing only to the eye--there are few things more disappointing than biting into a beautiful piece of cake and finding that the taste does not meet the visual standards.)

I am also convinced that home baking just tastes better. Dan and I could have gone out for dinner that night, but instead he did something he hated with love. These cakes were perfect--restaurant perfect--but I doubt I will ever enjoy anything more. With every bite I saw his determined face as he measured flour and beat eggs--just enough, but not too much. I remembered the planning, the questioning, every attempt to make my birthday special.

Eat this on your best china, a paper plate, or even lick it off your fingers. You've never felt more loved or more special--even if you simply made it for yourself. It's worth it. You're worth it.

Molten Chocolate Babycakes

I especially love that you can make these ahead of time, keep them covered in the fridge, and bake them as you need to. What a treat! (This recipe is also easily halved.)

Scant 1/4 cup soft unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
12 ounces best bittersweet chocolate (I like Ghirardelli)
1/2 cup sugar
4 large eggs at room temperature, beaten with a pinch of salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/3 cup all-purpose flour

6 individual 6-ounce custard cups or ramekins, buttered well
Baking parchment paper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and place a baking sheet in the oven (unless you are preparing these ahead of time).

Lay 3 of the custard cups or ramekins on a doubled sheet of parchment paper. Trace around them and cut out the discs--you should have 6. Press them in the bases of the well-buttered cups.

Melt the chocolate and let it cool slightly. Cream the butter and sugar, then slowly beat in the eggs and salt, then the vanilla. Add the flour and when everything is incorporated, stir in the cooled chocolate. Blend until smooth.

Divide the batter among the 6 cups, place them on the warmed baking sheet from the oven, and place it back in the oven for 10-12 minutes. (If you are baking these from the refrigerator, add another 2 minutes of baking time.) When you take them out of the oven, tip them our of the cups onto small plates or shallow bowls. Serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

Serves 6.