Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sunny day...sweepin' the clouds away...

I've always liked to bake bread, but it used to be that I didn't do all that much of it.  A few years ago, my husband Jamie got me Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible (don't remember the exact occasion).  I tried a few things, but they didn't always work out that well.  After starting my blog a couple years ago, I did start baking more bread, as recipes came up with Tuesdays with Dorie and Daring Bakers.  I made a whole lot of bagels.  The real breakthrough came last year, though.  First, my husband got me a copy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day for Christmas.  I was fascinated--it gave me a way to make homemade bread more often without investing a lot of time.  It also gave me the idea that I might be able to BYOB, yes, bake all my own bread.  I was a bit nervous about the idea, but figured that the worst that would happen is that I'd quit if I couldn't do it.

Then in May, Nicole of Pinch My Salt came up with the great idea to bake all the way through Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice.  I already had the book--I bought myself a copy about a year before that--and had made several of the recipes either for Daring Bakers challenges or on my own.  Again, I was nervous about the idea, but a whole bunch of my blogging friends were doing it--many of them at a slower pace, and I figured I could keep up with that.  

At this point, it's probably safe to say that I've baked more bread in the past year than in the previous 10 years or so combined. =)  And I'm still going.  We just started a second year of BYOB.  Last year I made lots of things for the first time--croissants, anadama bread, casatiello, raisin swirl bread, English muffins and ciabatta.  I've gotten really good at making my own hot dog and hamburger buns, from a variety of recipes.  I've made all sorts of rolls and sandwich breads for Brianna's lunch.  This year is off to a good start--I made real French bread.  And my collection of bread books keeps growing.  My most recent acquisition is Peter Reinhart's newest book, Artisan Breads Every Day.  I even got to go see him in person, for a class where he demonstrated recipes from the new book.  (More on that coming soon!)  With this latest book, I've embarked on a new challenge for the new year--sourdough!

What really got me doing was a recipe in the new PR book for Crusty Cheese Bread.  The pictures looked fabulous, and I just had to make it.  But first I needed sourdough starter.  I admit, I've been rather scared at the prospect of getting my own starter going.  Many of the recipes I've read seem to require a lot of attention.  But the one in Artisan Breads sounded pretty easy.  I also liked the fact that it started off with a small quantity of ingredients--I hate the idea of throwing away lots of flour and water.  There's still some of that, but as I get going, I figure I'll bake with it more often and reduce the waste a bit.  I'm not going to go into all the details here (especially since I didn't take pictures of the process).  If you're interested, I highly recommend getting your own copy of the book.  But a few things to note...

The one unusual ingredient I needed at the beginning was pineapple juice.  It's in there to create a more acidic environment to keep unwanted bacteria from thriving.  We don't drink much pineapple juice, so I just bought a can of concentrate, reconstituted just enough for phase 1 of the starter process (first you make a "seed culture"), and stuck the rest in my freezer to use at some point.  I started off making two different seed cultures, one with regular white bread flour and one with white whole wheat flour (I used King Arthur flour for both).  By the third day, I was seeing some activity.  I had a setback on day 4, though, when I came home from work to find that my bread flour one had turned an interesting shade of orange.  Colors like that aren't a good thing, so down the drain it went.  I was kind of upset about it, but kept on with feeding the www one.  When I hit the 4th phase and was supposed to discard half of the seed culture, I had a great idea.  I kept the extra and fed it with bread flour, while I kept using www flour for the first half.  By the time I built each into a "mother starter" the second one was mostly white bread flour.  So meet my two starters:

Bert and Ernie.  =)  Bert is the white whole wheat one.  They look a little different in part because of the different colors of the flours, but also because Bert was fed right before the photo, while Ernie was fed yesterday.  One of the things I really like about PR's mother starter is that you can stick it in the fridge for up to 5 days and take some out as needed.  Longer than that and you'll need to feed it again before using it.  Both versions are firm starters, though the www one is a bit higher in hydration because you use a bit more water with the whole grain (about 75% versus about 66% for the bread flour one).  After feeding, I leave the starter out on the counter overnight or while I'm at work (depending on whether I end up feeding at night or in the morning) and pop it in the fridge when I get up or get home.  So far it's worked nicely.  

Okay, at long last, we get to the first recipe I made with the starter.  The Crusty Cheese Bread looked too good to pass up.  First you use some of the mother starter to make a larger quantity of sourdough starter.  I used the bread flour one for this recipe.  I mixed up the ingredients (mother starter, bread flour, water) in the early afternoon and left it to ferment at room temp for about 5 hours (things rise quickly in my kitchen).  I decided to mix the final dough right away, but you can also store the starter in the fridge for several days.  

The dough was made up of all the sourdough starter, water, milk, agave nectar, bread flour, salt and some added instant yeast.  You could probably do it with just the wild yeast, but using some instant yeast allows you to things done in a shorter amount of time while still having lots of flavor from the sourdough starter.  The dough also has chives or onion added for flavor; I went with the chives.   I used half the dough right away, letting it rise for a couple hours before shaping and baking.  The other half went into the fridge.  For the first loaf, I kneaded in cheddar cheese cubes before shaping the dough into an oval boule.  Then I let it rise for about an hour, scored the top, let it sit for about 15 minutes, then baked it.  I baked the loaf on my baking stone and poured hot water into a steam pan in the bottom of my oven when I put the dough on the stone.  I baked the loaf for 30 minutes, rotating it halfway through for even baking.

I baked the second loaf three days later.  For that one, I patted the dough into a rectangle, spread shredded fontina over it, and rolled the dough up like I would for cinnamon rolls.  I pinched the ends closed and ended up with a baguette sort of shape.  That loaf only took about 25 minutes to bake.  I don't have pictures of that one, but it was rather ugly--I ended up with big cheesy bubbles where the dough pushed through the slashes in the top of the dough.

The verdict?  Aesthetics aside, both versions of the bread were fantastic.  When I baked the first loaf, about 5 minutes in, I stood in my kitchen trying to figure out what I was smelling.  It was the chives, which had started cooking where the dough hit the hot baking stone.  The whole house smelled amazing by the time the bread was done.  =)  The sourdough definitely added to the flavor of the bread as well.  Brianna preferred the first loaf, which isn't surprising considering her love of yellow cheddar (I used Tillamook sharp).  Gillian prefers "white cheese" (of any variety, sharp or mild), so that's why I made the second loaf with fontina (Boar's Head; I couldn't get the Italian one I prefer).  I took some of the second loaf to work, where it was a big hit as well.  I'll definitely be making this bread again in many variations. 

If you'd like the recipe, I highly recommend getting a copy of the book.  If you don't want to buy it, maybe you'll be lucky like my friend Tracey and your local library will have it.  I've been baking away, and will have more sourdough results to share soon! =)  I'm also submitting this bread to Yeastspotting--head over there every Friday for more amazing yeasted treats!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pretty in pink (and red)

There are definitely hassles with having kids in two different places and it's a pain having to plan family vacations around the school schedule.  But there is one advantage to having Brianna in elementary school now--I get to bake for her!  The day care has a policy prohibiting outside food.  They do allow for birthdays and other parties, but the items still have to be store-bought (with ingredient labels).  While I understand the concerns about food allergies, it still pains me every time I have to buy cookies or cupcakes at the grocery store.  I know I can do so much better!  =)

As it turns out, my girls' birthdays are conveniently in close proximity to holidays.  Gillian's birthday is a couple weeks before Halloween, and Brianna's is about three weeks before Valentine's Day.  Somehow it works out well for them.  Gillian wanted purple and orange colors for her cake.  No problem--Halloween m&ms!  And while Brianna has changed her favorite color to light blue, she still seems okay with the pink and red that you can find all over the place this time of year.  The other day, I found some great cupcake papers decorated with hearts, and pink (raspberry) filling goes nicely with chocolate cake and frosting, both in color and flavor.

This past weekend was a busy one.  I had to work Saturday, so I only had Sunday to do all the prep for Brianna's birthday, which was yesterday.  She's now seven--where does the time go?  It hardly seems possible that she could be that old.  It feels like this was just yesterday:

Now where was I going with this?  Oh, right.  Busy Sunday.  I needed to make Brianna's cake, since I knew I would be busy at the Peter Reinhart class as Central Market on Monday night.  (More to come on both the cake and the class.)  I also needed to make cupcakes for Brianna to take to school on Monday to celebrate her birthday with her classmates.  And then I needed to make this week's Tuesdays with Dorie recipe.  For that, Steph of Obsessed with Baking picked Cocoa-Nana Bread.  It looked like a chocolate-banana pound cake sort of thing.  I had no idea how we were going to manage to eat that as well as a great big chocolate birthday cake.  So being of sound mind, I decided to kill two birds with one stone.  I made the TWD recipe into cupcakes!

The recipe was quite easy to mix up.  It's the creaming method, beating together butter and brown sugar, then adding eggs, bananas and vanilla.  Then you stir in the dry ingredients (flour, cocoa, salt, baking soda and baking powder) and then mix in chocolate chips.  From the full recipe, I ended up with 19 cupcakes, which was perfect for Brianna's class.  I baked them for 23 minutes.  To make sure the cool red heart cupcake papers still looked festive, I used white papers inside them, which worked quite well.  For the frosting, I used both sour cream-chocolate frosting (see this post) and raspberry buttercream (from the Perfect Party Cake, flavored with raspberry fruit butter).  I used them for B's birthday cake, and didn't have a huge amount of either left, so I tried something new--I put both into the same piping bag and got swirls when I piped the frosting.  Very cool!

The verdict?  I only got a small taste--we had one extra, so Jamie and I split it (without frosting).  I thought it was pretty good.  The banana was subtle, but noticeable, at least when still warm.  They struck me as more muffiny than cupcakey, but I figured that it wouldn't be a problem with frosting on top. =)  Brianna reported that most of the kids in her class really enjoyed the cupcakes.  The frosting was a big hit.  Apparently a few didn't entirely like the cake part.  I'm guessing they didn't like the banana, which Brianna didn't know about.  I'm not sure if I'll make this one again or not--I'm kind of curious how it does as a loaf, but I'm not that fond of bananas.  We'll see.

If you want to give this one a try for yourself, head on over to Steph's blog for the recipe.  And be sure to check out the TWD blogroll to see how everyone else fared this week!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A jumble of good stuff

When I was a kid, my mom thought nothing of throwing us in the car and driving to my grandparents' house for the weekend.  It was only about a three-hour drive.  I have lots of good food memories from sitting in Gramma's kitchen.  It was even better when there were other people there, too.  One of my favorite people to see was my Aunt Maureen.  She and I share a birthday, nine years apart.  (My mom was the oldest and Aunt Maureen the youngest of seven kids.)  Aunt Maureen liked to bake (still does, as far as I know).  And I think she may be responsible for my tendency to eat baked goods for breakfast.   Not that she let us kids have any, but we saw her doing it.  =)

As I was making this week's TWD recipe, I was reminded of one particular thing that I recall her baking (and eating early in the day).  I can't remember the exact time frame, but it had to be sometime in the 80s.  There was a box mix for something called Jumbles, which consisted of a brownie-ish layer with dollops of oatmeal stuff on top.  They were really good.  And hey, with oatmeal, they qualified as perfectly acceptable breakfast fare, right? =)

This week's pick is from Lillian of Confectiona's Realm.  The title of the recipe is another mouthful--Chocolate Oatmeal Almost-Candy Bars.  I made half the recipe, so I went with an 8" square pan.  To make my life easier, I lined the pan with non-stick foil.  The bottom layer is an oatmeal cookie-like dough, with nuts added.  The recipe calls for peanuts, but I substituted cashews.  Since I know that I don't really like cinnamon and chocolate together, I left the cinnamon out of the oatmeal mixture.  You reserve some of the dough for topping, and press the rest into the pan.  For the middle layer, you melt together sweetened condensed milk, chocolate chips and a bit of butter and salt.  Once that mixture is whisked smooth, you add raisins and more nuts.  After spreading the chocolate on top of the oatmeal layer, the reserved oatmeal dough is dolloped on top of the chocolate.  I ended up baking the bars for 25 minutes.  I let them cool until room temperature before sampling.  Dorie mentions that they're good cold, but I haven't tried them that way yet.

The verdict?  Very good, but hard to eat much at once.  I cut the bars small and still had a hard time finishing one.  I enjoyed them a lot, though.  I love raisins with chocolate, so I'm not surprised that I liked the middle layer.  And the oatmeal was a nice contrast with the chocolate.  I'm not always a big fan of nuts in my desserts, but I liked the cashews, too.  Brianna and Gillian both seemed to like these, too.  (Though as usual, Gillian liked them more.)  I figured it would take us forever to eat even the half recipe I made, so most of the bars went to the daycare and B's after-school teachers.

If you'd like the recipe, head on over to Lillian's blog.  And be sure to visit some other TWD bakers to see how they did this week!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Snap, crackle, pop

Okay, I think I'm finally getting back on track with the BBA Challenge.  I hit a slump a couple months ago after making the English muffins, which didn't turn out all that well.  A lot was going on, both at home and at work, and I just lost most of my bread-baking motivation.  In December, I finally got back on track with blogging (thanks to all the cookie baking), but then the holidays happened, and work got even crazier.  But I finally had some vacation time around Christmas, and got the focaccia made.  That turned out really well, so I pressed on to the next recipe, French bread.

I admit, I've been a bit intimidated by the French bread recipe.  Not by the dough itself; that didn't look too difficult.  But while I've gotten better, I still feel like I don't have the best shaping skills in the world--and baguettes are definitely my weak point.  As with many of the other BBA breads, this one starts with a pre-ferment.  I've made bigas and poolishes before, but this time, I got to try pâte fermentée.  Like the other pre-ferments, the point is to develop flavor by giving part of the dough a head start.  Pâte fermentée is the most dough-like of the pre-ferments--the ingredient ratios are the same as for the final dough; you just make it a day or more ahead of time so it has time for fermentation.

The dough was easy to mix up, though I did make quite a mess.  The recipe says to cut the pâte fermentée into pieces and put the them in a bowl with the flours, yeast and salt.  Then you're supposed to mix everything together a bit, then add water.  Yeah, well, that resulted in flour everywhere, including all over me!  (and of course I wasn't wearing my apron...)  I don't think I actually lost all that much flour (I was able to recover quite a bit from the counter), but I'll definitely adjust the mixing order next time.  I kneaded for just a bit with the mixer, then finished it by hand.  It was a very nice dough to knead.

As I mentioned, before starting, I was concerned about shaping the dough into baguettes.  But the dough was very easy to work with.  I decided to go with the three small baguettes.  I followed the directions, first pre-shaping as batards and then forming the baguettes.  The dough extended so easily, almost like magic. =)  I used my improvised couche again and the loaves held their shapes nicely.  For a change, I was even able to score the loaves neatly, though I think I should have made the cuts just a bit deeper.  Next up was getting the loaves into the oven.  I really need a bigger peel--mine definitely wasn't up to the job of moving all three baguettes.  I ended up putting parchment on the back of one of my half-sheet (13x18) pans and putting them on that.  I transferred them to my baking stone, parchment and all, and added water to the steam pan in the bottom of my oven (I use the bottom part of my broiler pan).  I baked my baguettes for 30 minutes, at which point they had great color and a temperature of about 205F.

The verdict?  Tastes just like French bread!  I know, so surprising. =)  And it looked and sounded like French bread, too.  Shortly after I removed the baguettes from the oven, I could hear them crackling.  The crust was quite crisp--it cracked a lot when I cut the first piece.  The bread was good, especially when very fresh and with some butter and salt.  But to be honest, French bread isn't really my favorite.  It seems rather dry, and seems to stale quickly, though I was able to give it new life as garlic bread. =)  Not sure how often I'll make it, but I'm really glad that I tried it.

If you want to try this one for yourself, you can find the recipe in The Bread Baker's Apprentice, of course.  I highly recommend getting your own copy if you don't have one.  And watch for a round-up of all the Slow and Steady bakers on Nancy's bread blog in the near future.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Two, but far from terrible

Just a week or so ago, I wrote about my 2nd blogiversary.  The early days of my blog weren't that exciting, as I was trying to figure out what the heck to write about.  But at the beginning of February (2008), I read a post on Peabody's blog about this cool new group that she'd joined called Tuesdays with Dorie.  A couple days later I got myself a copy of Baking From My Home to Yours and signed up for the group.  I was pretty well convinced that I was crazy to join a weekly baking group. =)  But I can't begin to say how glad I am that I did.  I've made lots of wonderful desserts and lots of wonderful friends.  It's hard to believe that this group has been going for two years now!  Last year, we celebrated with a pick from Dorie herself.  This year, Laurie came up with the idea to vote on a recipe to make.  We actually ended up with two options, Tarte Tatin and Cocoa-Buttermilk Birthday Cake.

The variety of recipes we've made over the past two years has also led me to increase my collection of baking equipment.  One thing I still don't have, though, is a cast iron skillet.  (I really need to do something about that one of these days.)  Unfortunately, that's one of the best pans for making Tarte Tatin, and I don't own anything that would work well.  I will make the tarte at some point, but not this week.  That left me with chocolate cake.  I actually made it for Gillian's birthday in October (though with a different frosting), so I knew it would be good.  For the cake, I did get to use pans that I acquired for a previous TWD recipe--my 6" cake pans.  Their inaugural use was for Bill's (not so) Big Carrot Cake.  I knew we didn't need a great big cake to eat, since we're still recovering from all the holiday sweets.  And luckily, we had extra mouths to help eat the cake as well, since Jamie's parents were here.  I halved the ingredients and made the cake as directed, including the optional melted chocolate, and just adjusted the baking time slightly for the smaller pans.  This time I used a sour cream-based chocolate frosting that is a dream to work with.  I went for simple decorating this time, but it does pipe extremely well, too.

The verdict?  It's no surprise that everyone enjoyed this cake, since we've had it before. =)  And it was nice that we had extra family here to share it with.  Both my girls love the chocolate-chocolate combo, so they were very happy to see this for dessert.  My favorite part was actually the frosting I used--it has a great flavor and texture.

You can find the recipes for both the cake and the tarte by heading over to Laurie's blog.  Here's the recipe for the frosting I used:

Chocolate-Sour Cream Frosting
(adapted from Fine Cooking)

4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped (I used Ghirardelli 100% chocolate pieces)
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
5 1/3 ounces (2/3 cup) sour cream (not reduced fat)
12 ounces (about 3 cups) powdered sugar
pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Place the chocolate and butter in a small microwave-safe bowl.  Microwave for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes on 50% power, then stir the mixture until the chocolate melts completely.  Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the sour cream, powdered sugar, salt and vanilla until smooth.  Whisk in the chocolate mixture and continue mixing until the frosting is smooth and creamy.

Be sure to check out the creations of all the other great TWD bakers.  And here's to another two years (or longer) of yummy baking!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Two for the price of one

Oops.  My last TWD creation of 2009 is getting posted in 2010.  I made it on Tuesday and we sampled it on Wednesday, but I didn't get a chance to take pictures until Friday morning.  And here it is Sunday night and I'm still trying to finish this post.  Nice to know that the year is off to a good start. =P  My only excuse is that Jamie's parents have been here since last Tuesday, so I've been otherwise occupied.  In fact, I waited until they got here to even make this week's (last week's?) recipe so they could help eat some of it.  Margaret of Tea and Scones picked Dorie's Low and Luscious Chocolate Cheesecake for us to make this week.  It seems fitting, since we ended 2009 with a cheesecake as well.

The recipe calls for a graham cracker crust, but I think a chocolate cheesecake just cries out for a chocolate crust, as well.  It worked out perfectly that my blogging buddy Nancy and I decided it was also time for another bake-along recipe from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert.  For the first one, Nancy and I baked along with Sarah from Blue Ridge Baker to make Kamut Poundcake.  One of these days I'll actually get that posted...  This time, Nancy suggested that I pick something.  There are a number of things that I've been wanting to make, but we decided to go with something easy during the holidays.  You'd think I'd be totally sick of cookies after 12 Days of them, but we ended up making some delicious Cocoa Wafers.

The cookies were wonderfully easy to make.  You mix flour, good cocoa powder (I used Scharffen Berger), sugar, salt and baking soda in the food processor.  You pulse in butter, then add milk and vanilla.  You form the dough into logs and refrigerate them an hour or longer.  Then you simply slice and bake, making sure to bake the cookies long enough for them to become crisp as they cool.  Easy and delicious!

Fortunately, Nancy made the cheesecake before me, so I knew that 20 cookies would work nicely to produce the 1 1/2 cups of crumbs that I needed for the crust.  Next time I'll cut back on the melted butter, though.  I suspect the cocoa wafers have a whole lot more butter than your average graham cracker, and the crust ended up a bit greasy.  The sides slumped down a bit after baking the empty crust, but I was able to push them back up a bit.  And the crust was very soft but did firm up as it cooled.

Like the cookie recipe, the cheesecake batter was quick to mix up in the food processor.  You pulse together cream cheese, sugar, eggs, vanilla, a bit of salt and melted bittersweet chocolate (I used 70% El Rey).  A few people mentioned that the chocolate flavor was mild, so I decided to add a bit of espresso to pump it up.  I dissolved a teaspoon of instant espresso powder in a teaspoon of warm water and mixed that in at the end.  I was a bit surprised that the cheesecake wasn't baked in a water bath even though it didn't have any flour in it.  Usually flour (or some other sort of starch) is added to prevent curdling when the temperature isn't moderated by a water bath.  Then I realized that the difference must be the chocolate--all the cocoa solids in the bittersweet chocolate must be acting like flour (there are several references to this in Shirley Corriher's Bakewise).  I baked my cheesecake for 35 minutes, being sure to pull it out before it was all the way set.  If you wait until then, the cheesecake is usually over baked.  And sure enough, even though my cheesecake had a fair amount of jiggle to it when I took it out of the oven, as it cooled, it set up nicely.  It originally had a ring of puffed batter around the edge, but that settled as well, leaving me with a nice, even surface.  I chilled the cheesecake for about 24 hours before we ate it.

The verdict?  This is a very nice cheesecake.  The chocolate flavor was definitely on the mild side, but I think the espresso did help.  I think I'll actually use a lower percentage chocolate next time, probably around 60%, but maybe add more of it.  I rarely say this, but I think the cheesecake could have been a bit sweeter.  The cocoa wafer crust was actually my favorite part--it really added to the chocolate experience.  The cheesecake was definitely enjoyed by my taste-testers as well.  I can definitely see myself making this one again, with a bit more tweaking.

If you'd like to try the cheesecake recipe, head on over to Margaret's blog for the recipe.  You can find the recipe for the cocoa wafers and many other wonderful things in Pure Dessert.  I highly recommend getting your own copy, but you can also find the cookie recipe here.