Category Archives: Baked Goods

Breads, cakes, pastries, cookies, etc.

GUEST POST: CHALLAH

Jessie’s back!  And today she’s sharing a recipe for challah, a bread I had wanted to make from scratch ever since starting my Jewish day school job over three years ago.  Of course, I was hella-intimidated and never attempted my own until last weekend.  Though my challah did not turn out as beautiful as I’m sure Jessie’s professional loaves do, it still tasted incredible slathered with butter and/or jam.  And man, was I proud.  Earning that HinJew status!


Instead of making two loaves, I made one loaf plus a set of wee hamburger buns.  Not to be too self-congratulatory, but *that* was a very good idea (burger recipe coming next week).  Should you wish to make two loaves, Jessie has kindly provided a killer dessert recipe to use up your leftover bread; challah that’s a few days old also makes for great French toast.

I’d like to thank Jessie again for the time and energy she devoted to make baking bread seem less intimidating.  If you plan to spend some time at home this weekend, might I suggest tackling one of these recipes & then basking in the satisfaction/carbohydrate aftermath?

CHALLAH
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens Holiday Baking 2008 issue.

Challah is an enriched bread, which means that in addition to the usual ingredients, it’s made with eggs, butter, and honey (my first chance to use the little jar of Norwegian honey that Jill brought me from her Scandinavian travels!).

Challah is a traditional Jewish bread and is most easily recognized by its braided form–Jessie includes instructions here for the proper braiding technique, but I have to admit that I copped out and did a three-strand braid, which worked just fine.  If you are a badass and manage a four-strander, I salute you.

ingredients:

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water (105°F-115°F)
¼ cup honey
1 package active dry yeast
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup butter, melted and cooled
½ tablespoon salt
4-4 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon water

In a large bowl, combine the ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons warm water, honey, and yeast.  Let stand about 10 minutes or until the yeast is dissolved and foamy.  *If you do not see foam or bubbles, the yeast is dead and the process must be repeated.*

Using a wooden spoon, stir in the 2 eggs, melted butter, and salt.  Gradually stir in as much of the flour as you can.Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface.  Knead in enough of the remaining flour to make a moderately soft dough that is smooth and elastic (5 to 7 minutes total).

Shape the dough into a ball.  Place in a lightly greased bowl, turning once to grease the entire surface.  Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in size, 1 to 1 ½ hours.Punch the dough down (literally).  Turn out onto a lightly floured surface.  Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rest for 10 minutes.

To shape the loaves, divide dough in half.  Working with one half a time and keeping the other half under the towel, divide the dough into 4 equal portions.  Roll each piece into a rope about 12-15 inches long.   Attach the ends of two pieces together to make one long rope.  Attach the ends of the other two pieces together to make another long rope.  Forming a cross, fuse all of the attached ends together.  Be sure there is one piece pointing towards you and one pointing away from you, one piece pointing to your right, and one pointing to your left.

The mantra of this folding technique is left over right….left over right….left over right.  Repeat that to yourself a few times before starting.  During the braiding process, if the ends at the top of the braid start to come undone, pinch those together tightly.

Step 1:  Hold the two horizontal pieces in your hands, the right piece in your right hand and the left piece in your left.  Moving the two horizontal pieces to the opposite sides that they are currently on, cross the two pieces you are holding over the strand pointing towards you, being sure the piece in your left hand crosses OVER the piece in your right.  Your left hand should literally cross over your right hand.  Lay the two folded pieces horizontally.

Step 2:  Now for the vertical pieces–Grasp the top piece in your right hand and the bottom piece in your left hand.  Moving these two vertical pieces to the opposite sides that they are currently on, cross these two pieces over the piece pointing to your right (it should cross naturally this way), moving the piece in your left hand OVER the piece in your right.  The piece that was pointing away from you should now be pointing towards you, and the piece that was pointing towards you should now be pointing away from you.

Repeat step 1, followed by step 2, until the ends are too small to be braided.  Pinch the remaining ends together and remove off a small chunk from both ends to make them less pointy.  Braid the other portion of dough.

Place the braided loaves diagonally onto lightly greased or parchment lined sheet trays.  Cover and let rest in a warm place until nearly double in size (about 30 minutes).  Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In a small bowl, combine the remaining lightly beaten egg and 1 tablespoon of water to make an egg wash.  Using a pastry brush or spoon, brush each loaf evenly and completely with the egg wash.  Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until loaves sound hollow when lightly tapped and are a shiny, deep golden brown.  Immediately transfer the loaves from the sheet trays to wire racks to cool.

CREME BRULEE BREAD PUDDING
adapted from Butter, Sugar, Flour, Eggs by Gale Gand

ingredients:

½ a loaf of day old challah bread
2 cups half-and-half
2 cups heavy cream
Pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
6 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
Sugar in the raw (for caramelizing the top)

oven:  350°
pan: 6 ramekins or a deep baking dish, well buttered

Cut the crust off the bread and dice into one inch cubes.  You should have about 3 ½ cups of bread.

Heat the half-and-half, heavy cream, salt, and vanilla in a saucepot over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  When the mixture starts to come to a simmer (do not boil), turn off the heat and allow to infuse for 10 to 15 minutes.

Whisk the eggs and sugar together in a large mixing bowl.  Whisking constantly, slowly pour the hot cream mixture into the eggs.  Do not pour too fast, otherwise the eggs will scramble.  Strain into a large bowl to remove any cooked egg and the vanilla bean.

At this point, feel free to include any desired add-ins to the custard: dried fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, coconut, etc. Then add the bread cubes to the bowl, toss well, and let them soak in the egg-milk mixture until it’s all absorbed.  Fold the mixture occasionally to ensure even soaking (it’s okay if there’s custard left in the bowl).

Divide the cubes among the ramekins or dump it all into the baking dish and pour any remaining custard over the top.  Arrange the ramekins or baking dish in a roasting pan & create a water bath by pouring boiling water into the pan until it comes halfway up the sides of the custard cups or baking dish.  (I like to do this while the pan is on the rack in the oven, which I’ve pulled out slightly).

Bake until set and golden brown on top, about 30 minutes for individual puddings and 40 to 45 minutes for one big pudding.  Allow to cool before serving.  You can make this dish ahead of time, cover & chill in the refrigerator.

Right before you serve the pudding, sprinkle the top evenly with the sugar in the raw.  If you happen to have a kitchen torch, caramelize the sugar on top.  Otherwise, set the broiler to high and put the pudding(s) on a rack as close to the heating element as you can.  Keep a close eye on the pudding(s) and rotate them as necessary as certain parts will caramelize more quickly than others.  Remove from the oven and serve.

For a quick sauce, combine confectioners’ sugar with any liquid.  I use anything from milk to fruit juice to alcohol or even coffee syrups.  Start with a cup of confectioners’ sugar and slowly add my liquid of choice until the sauce is to the desired consistency.  If you make it too soupy, add more sugar.  Ladle over slices of the bread pudding; you can also garnish with fresh fruit or nuts.

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GUEST POST: CIABATTA

Hey folks…it’s bread week here at Blue Jean Gourmet!  I’m lucky enough to know the beautiful & talented Jessie Fila, a friend from high school who now works as a pastry chef at The Schoolhouse at Cannondale in Wilton, Connecticut (full bio at the end of this post).  She generously agreed to guest blog for me, sharing her bread expertise & recipes.  Today she brings us ciabatta–which, wow, I’m still dreaming about–and later in the week, challah!

I don’t know about ya’ll, but baking bread has always intimidated me, so I decided Jessie’s guest posts  would be the perfect opportunity for me to learn.  I tested each of the recipes that Jessie sent, and let me just tell you–there was a lot of gratuitous moaning over fresh bread in my house each time.  Are these recipes simple?  No.  They do require time and attention.  But the thing is, they aren’t rocket science, either.  Just make sure you aren’t in a rush and enjoy the process, it’s very gratifying.  Big thanks to Jessie for being our bread evangelist!


I love bread.  I love everything about bread.  And I don’t think I’m the only one, considering the idiom, “the best thing since sliced bread,” is one of the most popular comparative phrases out there.  Truly, bread is by far and away one of my favorite things in the world.  I could never get into the no-carb or low-carb diets because then I couldn’t eat bread! And who doesn’t want to eat bread?

As much as I love to eat bread, I like to make bread from scratch by hand even more.  There’s something therapeutic, meditative, and sometimes hypnotic about kneading dough that helps me focus and reflect just as effectively as any good yoga class.  It’s also great exercise, building upper body strength, as well as working the core muscles.  Indeed, making bread is one of my more favored pastimes. There’s nothing more rewarding than slicing into a freshly baked, warm loaf of bread, knowing you crafted it by hand.  True, it is a labor of love, but it is well worth the effort.

The key to making delicious bread is understanding the ingredients and the process.  For most basic sandwich or rustic breads, such as white bread, a baguette, or ciabatta, the ingredients are simple:  flour, water, yeast, and salt.  Other breads, called egg breads, like challah or brioche,  call for eggs, butter, sugar, and milk in addition to the basic ingredients to help enrich the dough and make it less chewy, more dense, and flavorful.  There are, of course, many other types of breads, but for this week I’m going to stick to these two main types.

Most ingredients are straightforward in their purpose.  Flour is used to give the bread structure and stability.  When mixed with water, the proteins gelatinize; vigorous agitation and stretching help to develop these proteins into gluten.  This agitation and stretching is exactly what you’re doing when you knead dough.  In developing the gluten, you’re creating the unique dense and chewy structure of bread.  Most bread bakers use bread flour instead of all-purpose flour because it has a higher protein content and will therefore create more gluten, resulting in chewier bread.  Salt is used mostly for its definitive ability to flavor foods without adding its own flavor component.  Salt is unique in the food world in that it doesn’t have a distinct flavor, yet it manages to enhance the flavors of everything in the dish it is added to.  This is why even cookie and dessert recipes will call for a small amount of salt added to the dough or batter.

Yeast is the one ingredient in my list that can be most difficult to work with.  It comes in many forms these days, the most well-known being active dry.  Yeast is a fungi, and is therefore a living organism.  It is easily killed and is very finicky.   It likes two main things:  to exist in warm, wet environments and to eat.  The water we use in bread is warm, between 105 and 115° F.  If it is any hotter or colder, the fungi will not be able to survive and the bread will not rise.  This brings us to what yeast likes to eat:  the natural sugars found in flour.  When the yeast eats the sugars, it processes the food like any other living organism.  The yeast extracts what it needs from the sugars to survive and expels the rest as waste.  Yeast’s form of waste is carbon dioxide.  When the yeast gives off the gas, the CO2 gets trapped in the gelatinous structure the flour and water have created, otherwise known as gluten, pushing the dough upward, causing it to rise.  This is the reason we let the bread rise a couple of times before baking, to allow the yeast to do its thing and give off the gas that contributes a strong amount of flavoring to the bread.

The process for making bread is not as simple as making a cookie dough or a cake batter and is far more time-consuming.  To start off, the yeast must be activated, allowing it to give off the much-coveted CO2 gas, and once all of the flour has been added, the dough must be kneaded.  The kneading process is very rhythmic and is easy once you get the hang of it.  Once you have your dough with all of the flour incorporated, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface, such as a counter.  Shape it gently into a disk.  Grasp the dough with both hands at the top and fold the dough into the center of the dough.  Press down on the dough as if you were trying to fuse the top and bottom parts together.  While pressing, use the heels of your palms to push the dough down and away from you. Give the dough a quarter turn clockwise and repeat the process until the dough is smooth.

Once you’ve kneaded the dough, it needs to rest and to rise.  The rising process can be repeated at least two times before the dough is shaped and baked.  After all the time and hard work, though, what we’re left with is a delicious creation is delectable on its own or with a small swipe of butter, but also serves as a key ingredient in many other dishes.  So, for each bread recipe, I’ve also included a few ideas for how you can use the leftovers (if there are any!)

CIABATTA
Recipe from Williams-Sonoma Bread

All bread takes time and effort to make, but ciabatta requires a little extra love and effort.  This recipe makes use of a starter, which is used to feed the yeast and serves to add more flavor to the finished product (sourdough is another bread that calls for a starter).

When timing the ciabatta, be prepared to make the starter at least 8-12 hours ahead of time so it has enough time to “proof” or ferment.

ingredients:

for the starter:
1 1/3 cups water, at room temperature
2 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon active dry yeast

In the bowl of stand-mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the water, 1 cup of the all-purpose flour, and the yeast.  Mix on low speed for 1 minute.  Add the remaining flour and mix until smooth and soft, 1 minute more.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature until almost tripled in bulk, 4-6 hours.  It will smell yeasty.  Refrigerate for 8-12 hours or for up to 3 days.

for the bread:
3 T warm water (105°F – 115°F)
¾ cup warm milk (same temp as the water)
2 tsp. active dry yeast
2-2 1/3 cups bread flour, plus extra as needed
1 ½ tsp salt
2 T olive oil, plus extra for greasing

When ready to make the dough, remove the starter from the refrigerator and let it stand for 1-2 hours. To make the dough, fit the mixer again with the paddle attachment.  Add the warm water and milk and the yeast to the starter and mix on low speed.   The mixture will be soupy.

Add 1 ½ cups of the bread flour, the salt, and the oil.  Mix on low speed until smooth, about 3 minutes.  Add only as much of the remaining bread flour as needed to form a very soft and moist dough, and mix on low speed for about 5 minutes, occasionally scraping the dough off the sides of the bowl and the paddle.  The dough should be very soft and sticky, pulling away from the sides, but still sticking to the bottom.

Cover the bowl with the oiled plastic wrap and allow to rise at room temperature until doubled or tripled in bulk, about 2 hours.  Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and sprinkle generously with bread flour.  Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface (it will deflate), sprinkle lightly with flour, and pat with your fingers into a 14 by 5 inch rectangle.  Fold the rectangle like a letter, overlapping the 2 short sides in the middle to make 3 layers.

Cut crosswise into 2 equal rectangles and place each half on the prepared sheet pan.  Cover loosely with plastic and let rest for 20 minutes.  Remove the plastic and sprinkle generously with flour.  Splay your fingers apart and press, push, and stretch each rectangle to make it irregular and about 11 inches long and about the width of your hand.  You want the dimples in the top; this is traditional.  Cover again loosely with plastic and let rest until tripled in bulk, about 1 ½ hours.  Repeat the dimpling process again 2 more times during this rise.

Preheat the oven to 425°F.  Sprinkle the tops of the loaves with flour.  Bake until deep golden brown, 20-25 minutes.  Let cool on the baking sheet.  Serve warm with olive oil for dipping.  Yields two large loaves.

What to do with leftover ciabatta, besides just eating it?  Here are two ideas:

TUSCAN BREAD SALAD

ingredients:
½ a loaf of day-old ciabatta, cubed
2 or 3 ripe medium-sized tomatoes, chopped
1 ball of fresh mozzarella, cubed
Generous handful of fresh basil, chopped
½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and toss to combine.This is my favorite combination for this salad, but you can increase or decrease any and all of the ingredients to suit your fancy.

You can also try this with any veggies and any Italian cured meats, such as Proscuitto, .  Any oil and vinegar combination works well with this recipe, too, and it is also excellent with citrus juice.

ITALIAN BREAD SOUP (RIBOLLITA)

ingredients:
2 T extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 medium-sized onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 ribs of celery, chopped
1 bay leaf
2 large garlic cloves, finely minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 can great northern white beans, drained (small cannellini beans work, too)
1-8 ounce can of tomato sauce
3-4 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
½ a loaf of day old ciabatta
1 bag baby spinach
Parmesan cheese

In a heavy bottomed saucepot, heat the olive oil over medium heat.  Add the onions, carrots, celery, and bay leaf and sauté until the veggies are softened and the onions are translucent, about 5-7 minutes.  Add the garlic.  Cook the garlic for about 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the sharp aroma has subsided.  Season with salt and pepper.

Add the white beans, the tomato sauce, and the desired amount of stock.  I would start with the lesser amount; more can be added later if the finished product is too thick.  Allow to come to a gentle simmer.  Once the stock is bubbling, tear off the ciabatta, crust and all, into big chunks and submerge into the stock.  Once all of the bread is in the liquid, break it down and mash it around with a wooden spoon.  If the soup is too thick for your liking, add more stock.  I like mine stew-like and so thick a spoon can almost stand upright in it.

Once the desired consistency has been achieved, add the spinach in batches, allowing to wilt in between additions.  Turn off the heat, remove the bay leaf, and serve.  Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and drizzle with the olive oil.


Jessie Fila
fell in love with baking the summer after high school graduation when boredom led to a discovery that she is very good at pastry!  After attending college in Florida, she traveled to New York to complete her Associates Degree in Baking and Pastry Arts from The Culinary Institute of America.  She loves dessert because it’s often the most memorable part of any meal, and can easily make or break a diner’s experience.  At home on days off, she cooks to relax and to feed her lucky husband Ken.

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GRANOLA BARS

I’m in Chicago for the weekend.  It’s cold here, but not too cold, grey and foggy instead of sunny, and I’m here because my friend Katie texted me a few months ago and said “bitch, when are you coming to visit me?”  Yes, I believe those were her exact words.

Katie and I first met as high schoolers at a school program called Close Up in Washington, D.C.  She was there from Michigan, me from Tennessee.  We started talking the first night in the lobby of the hotel where our groups were staying, and she wound up loaning me her giant CD collection and trying to explain that strange Yankee card game, Euchre.  The next day, we sat next to each other on the bus, and by the end of the five-day trip, she handed me a postcard with the Jefferson Memorial (her favorite) on the front and a note that included “I love you” on the back.

We are really such unlikely friends; I was the geekiest sixteen-year-old known to man, she was loud, sarcastic, a partier, the center of social attention.  For the longest time I was convinced that she was actually too cool to be friends with me and eventually she would figure that out and ditch our long-distance correspondence.  But the thing about Katie is that there are so many layers to her brash persona: fierce loyalty to family and friends, voracious reading habits, impatience for all things superficial, and her boundless generosity.

I like to think that I was able to see those things back then, when others couldn’t, or didn’t, and that she saw me—the, as it turns out, a little brash and mouthy and daring myself—underneath the suiting of a hopelessly self-conscious and sheltered sophomore. Katie wasted no time drawing me out of my shell.  She’s my delightfully corrupting influence. When Katie’s mom heard that I was coming to visit this weekend, she told her daughter, “Could you please not dye or tattoo or pierce anything this time around?”

This week marks our eleven-year friend-versary—in that time, we’ve probably spent less than two months in the other’s actual physical company.  But space and time don’t seem to matter for us; no matter how long it’s been, we always just pick right up where we left off.

HOMEMADE GRANOLA BARS


If historical trends are any indication, I’ll need to compensate for questionably healthy eating choices after spending a weekend with Katie.  Oh, yep, in fact, she’s banging around the kitchen right now, making pancakes.  Granola bars + serious gym time are going to be in order.

The folks at Superior Nuts were kind enough to send me some of their beautifully packaged sliced almonds and jumbo apricots, so I used them, but you could substitute any kind of nut or dried fruit.  I’m convinced that adding flavorings like cinnamon and nutmeg go a long way to putting these granola bars in a different stratosphere than the cardboard-replica-versions you so often find.
ingredients:

2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup sliced almonds
1 cup shredded, unsweetened coconut*
¼ cup golden flax meal
¼ cup wheat germ

*If you use sweetened, omit the brown sugar below.

oven: 350˚

Stir all ingredients together in a large bowl.  Spread out on two foil-lined baking sheets.  Toast for 10-15 minutes, stirring at least once, until the mixture has been lightly browned.

Return to the bowl and stir in:

1 cup dried fruit, chopped
½ tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg
pinch of salt

For the wet ingredients, whisk the following together in a small saucepan over low heat:

½ cup honey
3 T butter
3 T brown sugar (optional)
1 tsp. vanilla

Pour the mixture into the bowl and stir to combine.  Be sure that all of the dry ingredients are well coated.  For thicker granola bars, use a square pan.  Thinner, a rectangle.  Line your pan of choice with parchment paper.

Drop the oven temperature down to 325˚.

Press the granola mixture into the pan, using your fingers to get an even layer and pressing down hard.  Use the back of a metal bowl or small water glass to smooth out the top.

Bake the bars for 10 minutes, just to help them harden.  Cool thoroughly (at least two hours) before lifting the parchment-lined bars out of the pan.  Cut into desired size using a sawing motion with a sharp serrated knife.  Store in an airtight container for up to a week.

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CINNAMON ROLLS

You, like Jill, may be one of those people who is mystified by my love for this:

Yes, that’s right, I am a Von Trapper, a girl who counts Christopher Plummer among her first crushes, who knows every word to every song and squeals unabashedly when the camera first opens onto the Viennese countryside.

I can’t rightly say how many times I have seen “The Sound of Music,” but I do know that every time I go back to it, I discover something new.  Like the first time I was old enough to understand that my beloved Captain Von Trapp wasn’t just a handsome military widower who could sing and dance BUT ALSO a radical who resisted the Anschluss and stood behind his political convictions.

Or the first time I realized I had outgrown any affection for the cheesy gazebo scene (“sixteen going on seventeen”) between Liesl and Rolf in favor of the cheesy gazebo scene (“must have done something good”) between Maria and the Captain.  Or this most recent encounter, in which I decided that there was maybe something to this “favorite things” business after all.

Cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Or my version:

Babies with Afros and top-shelf margaritas
Rothko and Rilke and freshly-made pitas
Baristas who flirt with a glint in their eyes
These are the things that help me get by

So I’m not meant to be a songwriter–the sentiment still holds. Perhaps it’s ridiculous, but I think that conjuring up the memory or thought of things you like best can actually be rather useful.  Or you can actually conjure up some cinnamon rolls in real life.

Your favorites?

CINNAMON ROLLS

Cinnamon rolls from scratch do not a quick breakfast make.  Patience, grasshopper.  They are SO worth it.

For the dough:

1 package yeast
¼ cup warmer-than-your-finger water

Pour the water into a large bowl, then sprinkle the yeast on top with a pinch of sugar.  Let it stand for a few minutes—if it doesn’t foam, try, try again.

Now you’ll need these things:

¼ cup whole milk
2 T butter

Microwave them together for 30 seconds or until the butter is melting and it’s all warm (but not hot).  Toss the warm dairy into the bowl with the yeast, then add the following:

3 ½-4 cups all-purpose flour, added 1 cup at a time
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp. salt

I like to hand-mix but you can use a dough hook.  Knead until springy but still soft (you may not use all of the flour).  Don’t over-knead; you want a dough that’s loosely hanging together.

Butter the bowl you were just using & let the dough rise there for at least 1 hour, or until doubled in size (may take 1 ½ hours).

For the filling:

1 cup butter, completely softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
1 ½ T cinnamon

Whip all of the filling ingredients together with a fork or spoon until fluffy.  Roll the dough out into a large rectangle about ¼-inch thick.  Spread the filling gently atop the dough, going out to the edges on all but one of the long sides.  Leave a ½-inch border along that final edge so you have something to seal the roll with.

Roll the dough up into a log, starting with the edge opposite the border.  When you get to the border, wet the dough a bit, then pull it up and over the log and press down to seal.

Line a jellyroll or spring form pan with parchment (cleanup is a nightmare if you skip this step, trust me).  Using a serrated knife, cut the dough log into inch-thick rolls, placing them swirl side up in the pan.  Don’t space them too closely together, as they will expand.  Cover the pan with a damp towel and let the dough puff up again, about 30-45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 325˚.  Bake the cinnamon rolls for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.

While they’re baking, whip up a simple icing: a whole lot of powdered sugar thinned with a little bit of liquid.  You can use just plain milk or milk  + some kind of flavoring (orange juice, vanilla, almond extract, etc.)

Once the rolls have cooled slightly, drizzle them generously with the icing.

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GREG’S BROWNIES

I know it’s fashionable to berate Valentine’s Day as an over commercialized trainwreck, but you know what?  I kind of like it.  Though I’m lucky enough to have someone I love to share it with (and believe me, I know that helps), what I really like about the holiday, despite it being a shallow capitalist ploy to get us all to buy crappy candy & cheesy cards, is that it puts love on the calendar.

Granted, most of what our culture has to say about love is sad, scary, dangerous crap (hello, song lyrics & “romantic” comedies)—but does that mean love has to become a bad word? I hope not, because that thing called love keeps blowing me away.  Real love, that genuine, below-the-surface, heart-full-to-bursting stuff, is the most extraordinary thing I think we, as human beings, get to experience.

Here’s what I love about love: it’s the best teacher I’ve ever had.  Just when I have stuffed world back into its custom-sized box, contained and understood, safely put away where I might observe and manipulate it…love reminds me that there are approximately 8 zillion things possible in this life of which I can barely even conceive.

Each time I get to a place where I think I know love’s dimension, understand the various ways it can work, can drive people mad, can knock us on our asses and humble us and transport and expand…then suddenly, a whole new layer unfolds and I’m stunned all over again.

Love is the one thing that will actually push me to be the person I want to be.  My love for Jill has forced me to expand, to be so, so much bigger and calmer and compassionate than I ever was before I met her.  My love for my mother has brought me to moments of unselfishness and grace that fly in the face of my barest, basest self.

These brownies are named for a man I hardly know.  Greg and his wife Sharon are friends I made via Twitter, if you can believe it, and whom I have grown to love in a way that really doesn’t make sense.  Sometimes it works that way, mysteriously.

Loving someone else takes the much-too-bright shine off of our own imperfect lives for a little while.  I’ve baked these brownies for Greg twice—once on his birthday, once following his mother’s death—and both times, the gesture usurped and created a level of intimacy beyond what we had established at that point.

So now, every time I make brownies, I think of Greg.  Whether I’m making them for their namesake, or to go into a care package for Dave’s family, or for my colleague Steve (with leftover dulce de leche swirled in), or to finish off a dinner party for Jill’s visiting friend, my circle of concern grows in the process and, for a while, it isn’t all about me.  When I throw myself into a bowl of puddled chocolate and butter, when I will myself towards care and comfort with every spatula turn, then I’m a little bit closer to mirroring love and its infinity inside myself.


GREG’S BROWNIES

The key to great brownies is great chocolate.  Personally, I have become obsessed with Callebaut, which I am lucky enough to be able to buy in bulk at a few different specialty grocers here in town.  I can’t say enough good things about springing for fancy baking chocolate, especially if you’re able to find it in large blocks like the ones pictured here.  The price-per-ounce winds up being MUCH cheaper than purchasing chocolate in chip or bar form.  And as long as you keep any leftover chocolate wrapped in plastic & tucked into a cool, dark pantry, you’ll be able to keep it on hand for months.  Please do not put it in the refrigerator!

You can also order lots of great chocolate online—given how cold it is in most parts of the world right now, you won’t have to worry about it melting.  However, if you’re in a rush or just aren’t up to my level of chocolate-obsession, buy some Ghirardelli at the very least.  Nearly all grocery stores now carry it, and I cross-my-heart swear you’ll never go back to generic chocolate again.

This recipe is my fail-safe, with the coffee & vanilla flavors nicely highlighting the chocolate-y-ness of the chocolate (yes, that’s a technical term) and the chili powder adding just a little something extra.  You can obviously switch in other flavorings, like orange or almond, and leave out the chili if it makes you nervous.

As for texture, I’ve gotta have nuts.  Walnuts are most traditional for brownies, though pecans work nicely, too.  Extra chocolate is never a bad thing in my book.  But you could also toss in toffee bits, coconut, white chocolate chunks, etc.

ingredients:

6 ½ oz. bittersweet chocolate, in chips or chopped finely
9 ½ T butter
1 T Kahlua (substitute cold coffee if you like)
1 tsp. vanilla
3 eggs
1 cup sugar, with 2 T removed
¾ cup flour
¼ tsp. ancho or regular chili powder (optional)
pinch of salt

add-ins:

½ cup chopped milk chocolate
½ cup chopped walnuts

oven: 350˚
pan: square baking pan (8 x 8 or 9 x 9)

First things first-line that baking pan with foil.  Using two sheets (one going in either direction, like a + sign,) be sure to leave plenty of overhang on either side.  Spray the inside of the foil with baking spray.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a large bowl.  Personally, I like the convenience of the microwave—just work in thirty second increments, stirring regularly to prevent burning.  Of course, you can also use a more traditional double-boiler (a.k.a heatproof bowl set over gently simmering water).

Once the chocolate and butter are melted and mixed, stir in the Kahlua and vanilla.  Set aside to cool down a bit.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together vigorously.  Add to the chocolate mixture and mix thoroughly.  Sift in the flour and pinch of salt.  Toss in the chopped chocolate & walnuts, then fold all that goodness together.

Scrape the brownie batter into the foil-lined pan, then slide the pan into the oven.  You will need some toothpicks & also, some patience.  I recommend you begin toothpick-testing at minute 30, plunging a toothpick into the very middle of the brownie pan.

Since these are fudgy brownies, the toothpick doesn’t need to come back completely clean, but it shouldn’t be covered in batter, either.  Remember, be patient!   Depending on the temperament of your oven, the brownies will take 35-45 minutes.

Cool on a wire rack for at least ten minutes.  At this point, you can lift the brownies out, using the foil overhang, and cool them further.  I know it’s hard to resist, but they really are much easier to cut if you wait at least 20 minutes.  If you must dig in, however, who will blame you? Not I. And not Greg, I’d wager.

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FOCACCIA

Yeast doughs don’t have to be scary, I promise.  They can actually be rather friendly, spongy and springy and smelling of earth.  You mix some humble and frankly unimpressive ingredients together (flour, water, sugar, salt, & oil), contribute a little sweat in the form of kneading, then leave it all in a bowl and walk away, only to come back in a few hours to find this:

Well, okay, the focaccia won’t actually make itself, but that would take the fun out of it anyway.  Then you’d miss out on the authentic, even sexy experience of standing at a floured counter, working through the contents of your mind via a big hunk of dough.  Not to mention the satisfaction of your teeth meeting the firm crust and pillowy crumb of bread you made BY YOURSELF.

You can top your foccacia with any combination of flavors you like; I will only recommend that you use good quality stuff.  Pair the fresh bread with a big, green salad and bottle of wine.  Finish with a cheese course if you’re feeling decadent.

This week, I asked my students to write Six-Word Memoirs and their examples were so fascinating, so varied, so revealing of who-they-are that I posed the question to my Facebook friends, too.  Some of my favorite results:

cheer for many, fan of few.
outgoing is fine, I try outrageous.
drop-out, divorced, drug-addict, better now, thanks.
I shouldn’t have told you that.

As for mine, I wrote half-a-dozen, felt like I couldn’t settle on one, but in writing this post, I am sure of it now: In the kitchen, I am free.

What’s yours?

FOCCACIA
original recipe from Saveur.com

I can’t rightly call this recipe “adapted,” since all I’ve really done is alter the method & play with the toppings.  Though the original recipe calls for you to top the dough with olives and tomatoes before baking, I found that this resulted in charred and chewy toppings—unappetizing, to say the least.

My strategy to combat this is two-fold: mix heartier toppings (such as caramelized onions, olives, or chopped rosemary) into the dough, save more delicate toppings (flat-leaf parsley, sundried tomatoes, or Parmesan) for topping, either towards the end of baking time or once the foccacia’s already been removed from the oven.

Basic dough:

1 ¼ tsp. active dry yeast

2 tsp. sugar

3 ½ cups flour, more for kneading*

1 T + 1 tsp. kosher salt

extra-virgin olive oil

Coarse sea salt

Possible add-ins/toppings:

Caramelized or raw onions
Black or green olives
Parmesan or feta cheese
Fresh or sun-dried tomatoes
Fresh or dried herbs: rosemary, parsley, oregano

oven: 475˚
pan: cast-iron skillet, deep-dish pizza pan, or a shallow, enamel-glazed pot

Combine yeast, 1 teaspoon of sugar, & ¼ cup warm-but-not-hot water.  The official temperature requirements are between 110-115 degrees, and I recommend you use an instant-read thermometer if you haven’t made a lot of bread before.  After a few batches, though, you’ll get a feel for the right heat on your fingertips.

Let the yeast mixture sit about 10 minutes—it should be foamy.  If it’s not, toss it out and start again.  Whisk together the flour, remaining 1 tsp. sugar, & salt in a large bowl.  Make a well in the center and pour in the yeast mixture, 1 T olive oil, & 1 cup warm water.  Mix with your hands until it holds together.

On a floured counter or work surface, knead the dough until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes.  Curve the dough into a ball & place it in the bottom of a well-olive-oiled bowl.  Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel & let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in size, ~90 minutes to 2 hours.

After the first rise, preheat the oven to 475˚.  If mixing in ingredients, now is the time to do it, working any additions into the dough.  Liberally rub the pan you’re using with (still more!) olive oil, then transfer the dough to the pan, flipping it over once so both sides are coated in oil.  Gently stretch the dough to fit to it to the bottom of the pan.  Cover the whole thing with a kitchen towel and let it rise another hour.

Use your fingertips to dimple the surface of the dough, then drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt.  Bake until golden brown and cooked through, approximately 30 minutes.  If the surface of the foccacia becomes too dark, cover with aluminum foil for the remainder of baking time.  Top as you wish, either during the last few minutes of baking or once the foccacia’s come out of the oven.  Cool slightly on a wire rack before serving.

*You can make your foccacia whole-wheat by swapping out one cup of the all-purpose flour for the whole-wheat variety.  It’s pretty good!…though I prefer the more sinful regular all-white-flour version.

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ALFAJORES

You know how, once you learn a new word or buy a new car, you’re suddenly seeing incarnations of them everywhere you turn?

Back in November, Gemma Petrie over at Pro Bono Baker posted a recipe for alfajores and I knew I had to make them.  She has been a long-time blog crush of mine, with her spare aesthetic and sophisticated taste, and I have yet to try a recipe of hers that didn’t become a favorite.

During a trip to Argentina, Gemma and her boyfriend Nick fell for these soft, dulce-de-leche filled cookies and, lucky for us, Nick set about creating his own recipe for them when they returned.

Of course, once I made a batch of alfajores, they began to appear in every corner.  At my nine-course-birthday-dessert-tasting.  At our first holiday party of the season.  In my dreams the night after the first batch had all been eaten.  These gentle cookies are perfect with tea or for an after-dinner alternative to a heavy dessert.  If you still have room in your holiday baking agenda, I urge you to give these a whirl, or at least bookmark them for the future.

Regarding the dulce de leche required for this recipe, I point you to another blog crush of mine, Ashley Rodriguez of Not Without Salt.  Her luscious photography is a match only for the creamy milk caramel that results from her almost stupidly simple method of making dulce de leche: simmer a can of sweetened condensed milk in a large pot for three hours.  No, seriously.  It’s like magic.  Tasty, tasty magic.

I’m copying the recipe exactly as it originally appeared, but there are subtle variations you can make with these cookies .  Size, for example—the first batch I made were much larger than the ones pictured here, as I cut the rounds using a water glass.  I also sprinkled sea salt on the caramel layer before sandwiching the cookie pieces together.  For the second batch (pictured here), I employed a small biscuit cutter and dipped the cookies in powdered sugar before sandwiching and omitted the sea salt.

This week I’ll make a third batch for my in-laws, who are headed into town to share Christmas with us.  Jill’s father always has a hankering for something sweet, and I think he’ll like the way that these pillowy cookies go with his coffee. Here’s hoping you all have houses full of loved ones, good eats, & joy this week.

NICK’S ALFAJORES
Recipe from Gemma Petrie of Pro Bono Baker, posted with permission

ingredients:
1 ¾ cup flour
½ cup sugar
1 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
8 T butter, room temperature
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 T milk
1 tsp. vanilla
15 oz. dulce de leche*

method:

Combine flour, salt, sugar and baking soda in a bowl.  Mix in the butter and then work in the egg yolks, milk and vanilla. Shape the dough into two separate balls, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for about two hours.

Preheat oven to 325˚.  Roll out each ball of dough on a slightly floured surface to 1/4 inch thick. Cut using a two-inch cookie cutter and transfer cookies to baking sheets covered with silpat mats. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the tops of the cookies appear dry, but not so long that the cookies brown.

Allow the cookies to cool on a wire rack.  When cool, spread half the cookies with dulce de leche and top with the other half.  Serve with a café con leche for an irresistible treat.  A traditional way to serve the cookies is to roll the sides in shredded coconut.  We’re not big coconut fans, so we left ours plain.

*We used dulce de leche that we brought back from Argentina.  Feel free to use store bought or make your own.  There are plenty of traditional recipes out there, but I was extremely intrigued to find this recipe from the lovely blog Not Without Salt that calls for simply cooking a can of condensed milk in boiling water.  Brilliant.

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