Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Bread Bible: Pita bread

Pita BreadPita bread is the assignment for Alpha Bakers Bread Bible project. I'd summarize these as pretty quick, pretty easy, very good. I did a half-recipe of the pita bread, and gave it the afternoon to develop a bit of flavor not having time to wait on an overnight rest. As always, I let my KitchenAid do the kneading, adding a bit more water early on when the dough looked too dry.

Pita BreadAfter the time in the fridge, I divided my dough into 6 lumps to make the smaller-sized pitas. I rolled them out without flour on my silicone mat, then baked the first one on the preheated oven stone. It puffed over maybe half the suface area. I briefly thought about following the instructions to increase the hydration to improve on the puffing (puffery? puff-ability?), but decided that was too much trouble. Instead, I rolled the others out a bit thinner and let them rest again, then was more careful putting them on the stone to keep the pita flat and in full contact with the hot stone. Success--the next round had pretty much a full pocket across the pita. Pita Bread
Pita BreadI stuffed one with a slices of pork sausage with pear from Pine Street Market, and some mustard greens I sautéed in a bit of the drippings from he sausage. Very nice, though I should have cut back on the mustard greens. The mustard flavor was a good compliment to the sausage, but they were quite spicy-hot. A few sinus-clearing moments there!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

BB: Rhubarb Upside-Down Cake with Strawberry Whipped Cream

Rhubarb upside-down cakeThe Alpha Bakers are tackling the Cran-Raspberry Upside Down cake this week. However, 'tis not the season for fresh cranberries in this hemisphere, and apparently Atlanta is not a market for frozen cranberries. I looked at 4 stores without success before moving on to the rhubarb variation, which is written for fresh rhubarb. Well, it's not the season for that, either, but I could get it frozen and figured I could work out how to handle frozen vs. fresh.

The main differences in the 2 variations (besides the obvious one of the fruit) is that the rhubarb is macerated a bit and the resulting juices are used in the topping. The cranberry adds lemon juice to the topping instead. If using frozen cranberries, Rose says to not defrost them, so I applied that to the frozen rhubarb and substituted some lemon juice for the non-existent juices from macerating. I used about 7 ounces of frozen rhubarb, the amount called for if using frozen (or fresh) cranberries.

Once I got through the decisions on how to work with frozen rhubarb, this began to look a little more like the quick-and-easy cake it's listed as in the book. The topping of butter, brown sugar, a bit of salt, and the lemon juice got boiled for a couple of minutes "until deeply amber"....but as I was using dark brown sugar, it pretty much started out deeply amber. I went by temperature, and was over the target in about 2 minutes. The syrup got poured into a springform pan and the frozen chunks of rhubarb, tossed with cornstarch and lemon zest, went on top.

Next up was the cake batter, which was indeed quick and easy--a butter cake with some sour cream. That got poured over the rhubarb, and then baked on a baking stone to help the topping caramelize. Baking done, the upside down part came in and I got to see how much stuck to the pan. Which was not too much, and the pieces of rhubarb could be picked out and stuck back on the cake. My cake sides weren't very pretty, as the crusty part fell off in places. Let's just call the whole effect "rustic". I used a seedless strawberry jam to glaze over the rhubarb, instead of the raspberry called for in the cranberry version.

The suggested accompaniment is a strawberry Italian meringue...which for me would definitely have removed this from the quick-and-easy category. But I don't really like Italian meringue much, and I hate making them (I always spin part of my hot sugar syrup onto the sides of my mixer bowl), so I went with the luxurious topping of strawberry whipped cream--basically whipped cream with some strawberry jam whipped in. I also stabilized mine with a bit of cream cheese, so it would hold ovenight and be sent off with sister-in-law for her Tickling Tech session Friday morning. She texted me a couple of comments: "This is delightful. It's so light. The whipped cream is heavenly." and "It looks heavy but doesn't fill you up." Another teacher asked for the recipe, and also asked how much I would charge to make one for her. Given my time crunch right now, the answer to that is "more than anyone would pay for a cake like this", but it was flattering to be asked.

Rhubarb upside-down cakeRhubarb upside-down cakeRhubarb upside-down cake

BB: Sour Cherry Pie

IMG_0665I requested pie, specifically a double-crust pie, for Pi Day, and Marie obliged with the Sour Cherry Pie as the weekly Alpha Bakers recipe. That set off The Great Sour Cherry Hunt. Sour or tart cherries, a fruit I'd be pretty unaware of if not for these baking adventures, have a short season (mid-summer) and a restricted cultivation area (Michigan, mostly, and the Pacific Northwest). This helps account for why this Georgia girl (with some sojourns in Texas and Mississippi) has never seen fresh sour cherries in a store. Scheduling this pie way off-season is then not such a problem, because many people aren't going to find the fresh sour cherries at any season.

Then there's the tart cherry concentrate, an optional ingredient to add a punch of cherry flavor. This turns out to be a food supplement item (tart cherries contain a lot of melatonin, among other purported healthful substances), and you can get a 16 ounce bottle for $25 or so of the brand Rose recommends. The recipe wants 2 tablespoons, so unless you have a use for the rest of the bottle, that's a pricey purchase for just the pie. [Postscript: 2 weeks later, I spotted a $9 bottle at Your DeKalb Farmers Market this weekend. Of course.)

Discussion of the search for sour cherries started on the Alpha Bakers' internal Facebook group more than a week ahead of the assigned date, and some people mentioned finding them frozen, presumably a better product than canned. I decided to try to find them and to also look for a tart cherry concentrate at Trader Joe's, and if not there at the nearby Whole Foods. Neither store had the cherries--frozen sweet cherries were available at Whole Foods, but no tart ones in any form but dried. I did pick up a small bottle of sweet cherry concentrate for a mere $5 or so, which I'm sure did not give the same effect as Rose was after, but might be better than no cherry concentrate at all.

I then searched out two other upscale groceries I hadn't used before, Fresh Market and Sprouts, with no better luck. After the stop at Sprouts I moved across the street to a Kroger, where I found cans of tart cherries on special for $1.59 each, and bought 3. The generic canned cherries didn't have great color, but they tasted fine.

IMG_0674 In the end I did use all 3 cans of the sour cherries, minus a good handful tossed for cosmetic reasons (black or brown spots, mostly). I drained them well, then added about 1/2 cup of the canning liquid to the filling. That seemed to give an acceptable filling consistency--a little loose, but slices mostly held together. Well, one did, at least. Some of the issues with less pretty pieces may have been with cutting small wedges for those of us who wanted some pie, but not too many calories.

The pastry is the same cream-cheese pastry I had made for the Luscious Apple Pie, which I did before the Alpha Bakers got started. I didn't achieve "flaky" this time (though I did on the Smitten Kitchen white bean and pancetta pot pies for the same meal...that's an all-butter crust), and the nieces said "not our favorite crust" but good. Sister-in-law liked the buttery flavor and the crusty-ness. This was my first attempt at a lattice crust as best I can recall, and it was surprisingly easy--I suspect beginner's luck. I did add "3.1415" for Pi Day on top, but it's pretty well camouflaged by the lattice.

We all liked the sour cherry filling, not so overwhelmingly sweet as a sweet-cherry pie. Sister-in-law took the remains of the pie to school and found at least one person familiar with sour cherry pie and very happy to finish it off with great enjoyment. I think we'll count this as a successful baking project despite the lack of fresh sour cherries.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Luxury Oatmeal Cookies

Luxury Oatmeal Cookies
Oatmeal cookies is the Alpha Bakers' assignment this week...but the oatmeal is in the form of granola, which of course you make from scratch. The result is a good cookie, but not one that wowed me. The granola is basic: rolled oats, nuts (I used pecans instead of walnuts), oil, sugars, and flavoring. The sugars are maple syrup and dark brown sugar, and I cut back a bit on the maple syrup. After the granola was toasted lightly, it got cooled down and mixed with chocolate chips (Ghirardelli 60% cacao for me) and dried cherries instead of the called-for raisins.

The granola mixture is blended with a cookie dough, then chilled to get it firm enough to shape. It's quite a soft dough, so any delay in the shaping process meant the dough needed to go back into the fridge to not end up all over my hands as I rolled balls of dough and flattened them. Baked them until just brown, and it's done.

The result is a crisp-chewy cookie that was very good when freshly baked. However, stored in an airtight container after they were completely cooled, the cookies softened and wilted a bit. You still have a nice concoction of butter-sugar-chocolate-cherries with some oatmeal to pretend it's healthy, but without that extra crispness I thought a lot of the character was lost. I don't have any other opinions on the cookies besides this: I baked the entire batch on Sunday of last week, tasted a couple, then passed the lot on to my sister-in-law with the comment that she could use them for her Tickling Tech session at her school on Friday. By the time Friday rolled around, older niece (still home for spring break) had reduced the supply below the level needed for the teachers. Guess the cookies were pretty good after all...

Luxury Oatmeal CookiesLuxury Oatmeal CookiesLuxury Oatmeal CookiesLuxury Oatmeal CookiesLuxury Oatmeal CookiesLuxury Oatmeal Cookies

Monday, March 9, 2015

BB: Caramel buns

Caramel BunsRose has been telling the Alpha Bakers about these caramel buns since we got started on the bake-through. I've been thinking of them as sticky buns, where a sweet roll bakes in a pan with the topping ingredients on the bottom, and the whole thing is inverted when it comes out of the oven. These are not sticky buns. Rose's caramel buns are a cinnamon roll made with brioche dough, and drizzled (or doused) with a caramel sauce after baking. It's vaguely the same concept, but not at all the same results. These are better. :) For family members, think of Aunt Fan's caramels as a pourable sauce, covering rich cinnamon rolls.
Caramel BunsAs is common with The Baking Bible recipes, this one takes some time, and due to some travel in mid-week I stretched things out more. I made the sponge Sunday night, let it rise an hour on the counter then overnight in fridge, and it nicely bubbled through its flour blanket.
Monday after work I completed the brioche dough. My dough was a bit soft and didn't glom onto the dough hook very well after 4 minutes, so I gave it another few. Then in went the very soft butter in chunks, and I scraped the whole buttery mass into a rising container. It rose enthusiastically in my warming drawer and doubled in just under 1.5 hours. To make it easier to handle and not coat everything with the butter, the dough got chilled an hour, stirred down, chilled again, then turned out onto floured surface to knead a bit and fold. Then it was back to the fridge wrapped in plastic and in a zip-top bag.Caramel Buns

Thursday evening, back from my trip, it was time to make the rolls. First came the raisin debate: I'm indifferent to raisins, but some of the folks next door really dislike them. However, raisins (in my view) are easily removed if you don't want to eat them, and this recipe incorporates the raisins into making a glaze with the rum-and-water soaking liquid. I could have made my usual substitution of dried cherries, but there were golden raisins in the fridge so I went with the recipe as written. Having tasted the results with raisins, I don't think I'll repeat them and will do something else for the post-baking glaze. The raisins seemed like a no-value-added distraction in the caramel buns...or maybe I'm losing my taste for raisins, too.

The well-chilled dough was easy to roll out on a floured mat, and pretty easy to get an even distribution of the sugar-and-nut mixture after brushing the dough rectangle with egg. Rolling and cutting the dough got a little messy, as the sugar filling quickly moistened and started to leak a bit, then to coat the work surface and my hands as I cut the cylinder into individual rolls. I tried both dental floss and a serrated knife for cutting the rolls with mixed success--really what I needed to do was chill the dough again at that point.

Caramel BunsThe rolls go in 6 to a 9" cake pan, around the perimeter. The center is filled with either a Ball jar or ramekins of about 3" diameter. Whichever vessel you choose gets partly filled with boiling water as the pans go into the oven, and my choice of a ramekin was a bad one. Halfway through the baking, the ramekins (or jars) are to be removed so the rolls will brown on that inside edge...and pulling an oven-hot, water-filled ramekin from a pan of sweet rolls that had risen about to its top edge was a challenge. I think I only anointed one roll with some hot water...

Caramel BunsWhile the rolls were rising I made the caramel, and while they baked I made the glaze from the raisin soaking liquid plus some butter. The rolls got brushed with the glaze while hot, and then I did the step of using some caramel to glue pecan halves on each roll. At this point the rest of the caramel could have been poured over the rolls, but as none of mine were to be consumed until the next morning, I stopped at that point. Quite a test of will-power to not grab a roll warm from the oven and dunk it in the caramel!

Caramel BunsI had a roll the next morning for breakfast, reheating it slightly and warming the caramel before pouring it over the top. Heaven on a plate, I must say--this hits most of my food preferences. As I said above, the raisins will be left out the next time I make these, and perhaps a little chocolate could go in instead. Or I can wait for the Monkey Bread recipe which seems to be just about that idea.

I took the bulk of the rolls next door to sister-in-law for her Friday teachers' session. The report I got back was that my brother had one without added caramel, fearing it would make it too sweet. He really liked the roll....until he hit the raisins. The report from various teachers were all very positive, especially the one who had a microwave available to warm hers up--I think R had heated the caramel sauce, but not the buns, before putting them out.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Bread Bible: Rosemary Focaccia

Rosemary FocacciaThe Alpha Bakers group, not ambitious enough with the goal of baking through Rose Beranbaum's new The Baking Bible, has spawned a subgroup to bake from the older The Bread Bible. We'll only bake together once a month on this one, and will follow the order of the breads Marie Wolf used when she tackled the same project back in 2005. As a little background, Marie's efforts with The Bread Bible led to her friendship with Rose, and then to the Heavenly Cake Bakers and the current Alpha Bakers group efforts.

First up is the Rosemary Focaccia, which I vaguely recall making before. The lovely open, hole-y character of focaccia is produced by a very wet dough, almost a batter, and in my world is only going to be tackled with the help of my stand mixer. To be honest, I've never been a person who found hand-kneading dough to be relaxing, or stress-reducing, or in any way attractive, so I almost never tackle a recipe that doesn't appear to be do-able with mechanical aid for almost all the kneading. Rose's focaccia is even more suited to a stand mixer, as the dough/batter is beaten for about 20 minutes, during which is (eventually) develops enough gluten to sort of glom onto the paddle. The recipe it will become a ball....but that's something of a overstatement for mine. The character did change, though, at about 15 minutes into the beating, not 20. To be safe, I kept beating until close to the full 20 minutes in case it really did become a ball. But no...

The not-a-ball of dough then is poured/scraped into a container for the first rise. Then the very spongey looking dough is scraped onto a sheet pan that's been generously coated with olive oil, both to prevent sticking and to develop a crunchy crust. There's then a brief period of trying to encourage the dough to cover all of the sheet pan, without getting yourself and your counters covered in dough, and without deflating all the bubbles. Once that's done, perhaps with a couple of rest periods to let the dough relax a bit, One more rise, then more olive oil is drizzled on top, rosemary needles and sea salt are sprinkled over the surface, and it get baked with the pan sitting on a pre-heated baking stone in a hot oven.

The results are a thin, crusty, bread, very chewy, and flavored with the olive oil, rosemary, and salt. Wonderful stuff, and it was hard to not eat half the pan by myself while it was still warm from the oven. I did restrain myself, and shared some with sister-in-law before packing the remainder for my work lunches.

Rosemary FocacciaRosemary FocacciaRosemary FocacciaRosemary FocacciaRosemary FocacciaRosemary FocacciaRosemary FocacciaRosemary Focaccia

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

BB: Hamantaschen

Hamantaschen--prettier onesI've made hamantaschen a couple of times before this week's The Baking Bible assignment, having learned about the cookie from my Jewish sister-in-law. It's not a style of cookie that particularly appeals to me--I class it with jam thumbprint cookies and the like. This may or may not have anything to do with my struggles to produce acceptable-looking hamantaschen. Alas, Rose's recipe might taste a little better than the others I've attempted, but I still struggled with the shaping and baking.

This recipe is a butter cookie made in the food processor. There are the usual amounts of precise details in the recipe, but nonetheless the actual dough is pretty quick to put together. I then skipped the time-consuming step of making a poppyseed filling from scratch (with a side of making apricot levkar to stir into it) in favor of the can of Solo poppyseed filling enhanced with a bit of lemon peel and some apricot jam stirred in. I also made some hamantaschen with just the apricot jam, de-pulped per Rose's instructions for a levkar substitute.

I used a slightly smaller cookie cutter of about 2.5 inches instead of 3, and after overfilling the first batch discovered that a scant teaspoon was plenty of filling--Rose calls for 2 teaspoons for the 3-inch cookie dough rounds. I used the egg glaze to try to glue the cookie sides into the classic tricorne hat shape and chilled the formed cookies before baking, all trying to keep the cookies from unfolding as they bake and letting the filling run out.

My failure rate was down from my last attempt (with the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook recipe, I think), but that's not saying much. Sister-in-law informs me, now that I'm done with my hamantaschen baking, that folding the sides in to almost completely close is a better strategy. That bit about folding the collapsed sides back up while the cookies are hot from the oven? Not so much. Observe the not-so-pretty cookies:Hamantaschen--not so pretty

In terms of taste, I think the dough is an improvement over my last attempt (though the memory could be off on that). I was a little over-enthusiastic with the lemon peel in the poppyseed filling, but it was in the acceptable range...if you like lemon. The ones where I also stirred in some mini chocolate chips were better, as the chocolate moderated the poppyseed. (And not much isn't improved with a bit of chocolate.) The apricot ones were not successful--I should have used apricot preserves straight from the jar, not the heated-and-sieved version that was a bit too thin to fill these cookies.

So: not really my sort of cookie, and one where I struggle with the baking technique. I sent most of the batch off with sister-in-law for her "Tickling Tech" teachers' session on Friday morning, where the small crowd seemed to appreciate them. The most appreciated cookies of the batch, though, were another step down the line. Sister-in-law passed along the leftovers to another teacher who gave one each to 6 students as a reward for having quietly lined up before class as instructed. Those students ate them slowly and with great enjoyment while the tardy remainder of their classmates watched from the other side of the door, cookie-less. This seems to have greatly enhanced the hamantaschen.