Nothing finer: fresh baked baguettes

Kneading dough

Other than your basic quick breads (zucchini, banana nut, etc.), never in my life have I attempted to bake real fresh bread.  And though my kitchen is stocked with nearly every useful and useless gadget invented, I do not have a bread machine.  I’d love to blame this deficiency on the whole “low carb” trend, but the fact is that is carbs and I get along quite well.  I’d rather carry a pound or two of extra love around the middle than to banish rice, sweets, and dinner rolls from my life.   Plain old laziness could be the real reason why I never attempted to bake bread, or maybe it’s fear, perhaps both.  Suffice it to say I was pretty excited and a little intimidated when baguette and sourdough day arrived in baking class.

Baguettes pre-baking

Determined to get this one right, I watched the chef’s demonstration, carefully taking notes about the various kinds of yeasts, how they react, rich dough vs. lean dough, and the “right” and “wrong” ways to knead my dough.  When it was our turn to bake, I dove right in, weighing and sifting my flours with expert precision and dissolving my fresh yeast slowly in perfect room temperature water.  The chef allowed us the option to cut our kneading time in half by using the dough hooks on our commercial Kitchenaids, but I scoffed loudly at the thought of taking any short cuts and kneaded my dough by hand for the full 10 minutes (the “right” way, of course: left heel of the hand, right heel of the hand, turn back, again).  After letting the dough ferment to allow the yeast to work its magic overnight, we scaled (divided) our baguette dough and shaped it into 2 baguettes and one “epi,” which is meant to resemble wheat.  Baguette recipe below.

Baxter oven

The shaped dough then went into the proofer (a warm humid box) so it could rise, then it was  slashed and given an egg wash to promote browning.  Next we baked our baguettes in the colossal Baxter oven.  For a first attempt, my baguettes weren’t too bad.  My epi colored nicely, but I skimped a little on the egg wash on the baguettes and they didn’t brown as well as I would have liked.  My baguettes did achieve a crumbly exterior and a somewhat bland but soft white interior.  We’ll be tested on baguettes for our first practical exam so I have one more chance to get them perfect.

Next we attempted sourdough, using a starter (a sludgy yeast mixture that gives sourdough its signature flavor) that’s been around LCB for at least 5 years.  Yeast is alive, so if you feed it flour and water it will survive indefinitely.  I decided to make a whole wheat sourdough as opposed to a generic white sourdough.  This was probably a mistake because the wheat versions didn’t respond well to overnight refrigeration and most of them ended up resembling small UFOs.  My bread tasted nice, but not as “sour” as I’d hoped.  I think the recipe on which we relied might need some tweaking.  Sourdough and dinner rolls

All in all I was pleased with my first attempts.  I’m pretty sure this won’t be my last foray into the world of artisan breads, but I doubt I’ll be the Suzy Homemaker of breads every Sunday either.

Baguettes anyone?

Fresh baguettes

French Baguettes

Prep time 2 hours, 30 minutes
Cook time 30 minutes
Total time 3 hours
Meal type Bread

Ingredients

  • 14 oz Water (Room temperature)
  • 3/4 oz Fresh yeast (or 3 tsp active dry yeast)
  • 24 oz Bread flour
  • 1/2 oz Salt
  • 1 Egg

Note

Adapted from Le Cordon Bleu's recipe

These baguettes have no preservatives so will only stay fresh for 1-2 days max.

Directions

1. Add yeast to water, stir slowly to dissolve, about 5 minutes.
2. Sift the salt and bread flour onto parchment paper.
3. Add your sifted flour/salt to the yeast/water one third at a time, using a wooden spoon and then your hands to work it in. Once the flour is mixed in, turn it out on a floured surface and knead gently for 1 minute to incorporate.
4. Using a mixer on the 2nd speed with the dough hook, knead dough for 3 minutes. Rest for 2 minutes, then again for 3 minutes. If you’re kneading by hand, knead for 10 full minutes until dough is smooth and elastic. It should pass the “window” test: tear off a 1 ounce piece of dough and gently stretch it into a 2 inch square- the glutens should hold the strands together and not break apart in the middle of your “window”. If they break apart, keep kneading.
5. Place dough in very loose plastic wrap and let rise overnight in the refrigerator, or place it in a lightly oiled deep bowl loosely covered with plastic wrap, in a warm spot in the kitchen until it doubles, about 90 minutes.
6. Separate dough into 3 11-12 ounce portions. With each of the 3 portions, roll into a ball, pinching the bottom of the ball together and let it rest for 3 minutes with the pinched bottom facing down. Then using both hands on a lightly floured surface, roll into a long caterpillar shape about 20 inches long, keeping the pinched seam down. Place your 3 long rolls into the oven (without the heat running) and let them rise again. Your unheated oven should be about 80 degrees. If the air is really dry, spritz some water in the over before adding the bread. The bread needs a moist warm area to “proof.” The loaves will rise and soften and look a little like marshmallows after about 10-12 minutes.
7. Take the loaves out, then preheat oven to 450 degrees.
8. Using scissors or a sharp knife, make 5 diagonal slashes across the top of each loaf, evenly spaced. In a small bowl, whisk the egg thoroughly, and brush the tops and sides of each loaf.
9. Bake until golden brown in the center of the oven, about 30 minutes. To ensure proper texture, put a baking dish filled with water in the oven as it preheats, then remove to bake the bread.

 

 

Spreading Joy with Quick Breads: Cookies, Muffins, Brownies

We spent the last two days finishing off our survey of quick breads with muffins, cookies, and Betty Crocker’s favorite, brownies.  Though I’m not yet a patissier, I’ve already learned a couple of valuable lessons.

Blueberry muffins and brownies

First, don’t trust a partner to measure your ingredients.  We worked in pairs to prepare an entire sheet pan of brownies.  While I was off carefully melting our unsweetened chocolate and butter mixture, my partner, who is ordinarily pretty Sharp and is one of my culinary buddies, measured our dry ingredients.  Professional bakers measure by weight on a scale, not by volume in cups, so it’s a little trickier at first.  Somewhere along the way we messed up, because our brownies were dense and dry, not the gooey chocolatey goodness they were supposed to be.  Personally I think he added too much flour but it’s still a mystery that not even our instructor could unlock.  Sorry pard’ner, I’m blaming you for this one.

My blueberry muffins, which I did all on my own, turned out fluffly, light, perfect.

Chocolate chip cookies

Yesterday we moved on to cookies, where I learned my second imporant lesson.  Cooking in a professional kitchen is not like cooking by myself in my kitchen at home where I control everything.  For one thing, it’s about 30 degrees hotter in LCB’s kitchen.  That means your butter melts faster, a bad thing when it comes to cookies.  More often than not we need to stop to chill our batter before baking.  For another, I need to share an oven with about 5 other people.  We haven’t yet mastered working together to put our trays in at the same time so oven doors are constantly opening and closing, letting the precious heat escape.  Cookie rule number 1: when you put your cookies in an oven that’s not up to temperature, this happens:

Peanut butter cookies for evaluation

Spread.  Oh death.  (Side note 1: I don’t know why, but every time I think about spread this song pops into my head, replace “sprawl” with “spread.”  Could be because I LOVE that song, it’s a personal mantra of sorts.)  If spread has happened to you, you know how frustrating it is.  (Side note 2: the divine David Lebovitz, a blogger favorite, has a helpful post detailing why cookies spread and how to prevent it, here.)  My chocolate chip cookies otherwise turned out fine, and upon tasting them my instructor gave me a thumbs up despite the dreaded spread, which happened to nearly everybody on cookie day.

By my second batch of cookies, peanut butter, I had learned my lesson, and waited patiently until others chose their ovens before I found one that everybody else forgot existed.  And wouldn’t you know it, perfect!  I’ve never been a fan of peanut butter, but if you are, then this one’s for you: Peanut butter cookie recipe below.

Peanut butter cookies and milk

Today in baking class: yeast breads (baguettes!).  How French!  More soon…

Peanut butter cookies

Serves 12-20
Prep time 1 hour
Cook time 12 minutes
Total time 1 hours, 12 minutes
Meal type Dessert

Ingredients

  • 12 oz Butter, unsalted (Cold)
  • 8 oz Brown sugar
  • 8 oz Granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Salt
  • 12 oz Peanut butter (Smooth is preferred)
  • 2 Eggs
  • 2 teaspoons Vanilla extract
  • 16 oz Pastry flour ((you can use all purpose too))
  • 1 teaspoon Baking soda
  • Extra sugar (to top cookies)

Note

Adapted from Le Cordon Bleu's recipe

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
2. In a mixer, add cold butter in chunks along with and brown and granulated sugar. Mix on low until butter is creamed together.
3. Add peanut butter and mix until just combined.
4. Add eggs and mix on low until just combined.
5. In a separate bowl, sift flour, salt, and baking soda together.
6. Add flour mixture in thirds to sugar mixture, mixing on low speed to incorporate 1/3 at a time, or by hand until just combined. DO NOT OVER MIX (or your cookies will spread).
7. Chill the batter for 20 minutes (important to prevent spread).
8. Scoop out 1/4 cups of batter and roll into balls. Roll the balls in some granulated sugar until they are coated with a fine dusting of sugar all around. Place on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper or silpat and press down lightly with your palm. Take a fork and press into the batter slightly once with the tines, then change direction and press twice to get a cross hatch pattern on the top of the cookie. Sprinkle the top with a little brown sugar or sugar crystals if you have them. Place prepared cookie sheets in the refrigerator again and chill for 30 minutes (again, to prevent spread).
9. Bake for 8-12 minutes until cookies are lightly browned.

Baking Begins: Jalapeno Cheese Biscuits

My baking rotation has begun and I’m so excited I’ve allotted 2 pounds of weight gain for this next six weeks (I’ll work it off when I start my next culinary class, I’m sure).  My new chef instructor is Susie Norris, author of Chocolate Bliss.  She left her job in television to become a pastry chef and instructor at LCB so I think we may have a few things in common (though I’m just on hiatus from my job at the moment).  I’m anxious to learn my way around pastries and to take a break from the frantic pace of drill sergeant instructor’s class.

We started our class with quick breads, specifically biscuits and cookies.  In general, quick breads use chemical leaveners (baking soda or powder) and, as the name implies, don’t take too much fuss, so it was a good place to begin at the beginning.  Day 1: cheddar and jalapeno biscuits.  A little ho hum but we’re just getting started.  In my culinary classes we usually made just one portion, which I got to take home but it was rarely enough to feed Big N and me.  In baking, however, I make lots and lots of everything and take my loot home in a cake carrier.  I think I’m going to be making some new friends with all my giveaways.  My father, who has the most developed sweet tooth I know, has already planned a few extra visits to Pasadena to take home goodies visit his grandson.

Cheddar Jalapeno Biscuits

I’ll spare you the details about how I made biscuits, other than to tell you mine rose like they were supposed to and came out light and flaky, just like they prefer them in the South.

Baby squash

That evening I wanted to serve my biscuits for dinner but didn’t have any chicken to fry or collard greens to braise, the preferred accompaniment to biscuits.  So I made do with some lamb loin chops, and these beautiful baby squash that I brought home from my weekend trip to Lake Arrowhead.  The lamb I sprinkled with my famed dry rub and had Big N grill them while I steamed my squash with some garlic, lemon, salt and pepper.  But my lamb needed a sauce, what to do?  I remembered I had some cherries in the fridge.  So I pitted them and threw them in a pot with a generous pour of balsamic vinegar.  I let the vinegar reduce with the cherries, added a little olive oil (rather than butter) at the end and voila, simple sauce.  The tanginess of the cherries and balsamic complemented the lamb.  Not the best pairing with my biscuits but hey, it’d be a shame to let biscuits go stale just because there’s no chicken to fry.

Lamb with Cheddar Jalapeno Biscuits

Next up in my baking adventures: muffins and cookies.  I feel my waistline expanding already.

Another flavor match made in heaven: Strawberry Rhubarb Pudding Cake

Speaking of flavor marriages, rhubarb and strawberries are kismet. There’s a general rule: if they grow together, they go together. You see strawberries and rhubarb popping up right around the same time of year at the farmers’ markets. Strawberries are fragrant, sweet, and colorful, and rhubarb contributes acidity and a refreshing tanginess. Bake them up in a sweet dessert and you have Spring on a plate (and something fun that will chase away this lingering gloominess we’ve been experiencing over the past couple of days in SoCal). Rhubarb won’t be in season for very much longer so grab it at your local market soon.  It looks like red celery stalks.  Just remember that you must cook your rhubarb first because eating it raw will give you a tummy ache, and eat just the stalks, never the leaves (they’re poisonous, the stores usually sell just the stalks).

This recipe comes from Gourmet Magazine via Epicurious.com and is one of the easier desserts to bake.  Cook the strawberries and rhubarb on the stove top in some sugar until soft.  Mix a simple cake batter, pour it into a dish, and bake.  Done.  The cake is just a little bit gooey, like underdone cake batter, and the strawberries and rhubarb provide lots of puckery sweet tanginess.  Serve with some vanilla whipped cream or ice cream.  Delish.

rhubarb-pudding-cake-5-of-5

 

Sweet tooth satisfied: Whoopie Pies

I inherited my father’s sweet tooth.  His is so bad that he scurries downstairs during the middle of the night to raid the cupboards for a sugary midnight snack.  I indulge him every year on his birthday by baking him a sweet treat.  Last year I went with the red velvet layer cake.  This year I decided to go for something nostalgic: the whoopie pie.  Hailing from New England and with roots dating back to at least 1925, the whoopie pie might just be the perfect all-American confectionery.  Fluffy gooey marshmallow cream is sandwiched between two soft rich chocolate cookies.  Whoopie Pies taste kind of like Suzy Q’s (remember these?).

One bite of the whoopie pie and you are instantly transported back to an age when enjoying sweets meant eating with wild abandon and smothering them all over your face, fingers, and clothes, prompting your mother to clean your face using her own saliva.  Those were the days. 

Whoopie pie recipe here

Next time I might combine two favorites and make red velvet whoopie pies.  Now we’re talking. 

PS- don’t even think about serving these unless you have a glass of ice cold milk standing by. 

whoopie-pies-4-of-4

Dinner Party Dessert: Drunken Pears

Recently, Big N and I invited the Double Ds over for dinner.  It was my first attempt at a dinner party type deal post baby so I kept it fairly simple.  For dinner I made miso marinated black cod with black forbidden rice and bok choy stir fry.  Since you’ve seen me talk about miso black cod before, and because my rice was crunchier than it should have been, I’ll skip bragging about dinner and focus on dessert:  drunken pears.

This was a three-element dessert:  cabernet soaked poached*pears with cabernet sauce, toasted almond ice cream, and crispy almond macaron.  The idea for the cabernet poached pear came from here, but I added clove for some extra kick.  Bosc pears are still in season and are firm enough to withstand poaching.  I poached the pears the night before, making sure to turn them often to provide even color.  Once they were soft, I strained the spices from the liquid and reduced the leftover poaching liquid until I had a nice cabernet syrup. 

The toasted almond ice cream was my own creation, toasted almond ice cream recipe.  The crispy macarons were a new idea, sort of.  I wanted a little crunch to this dessert to contrast the soft texture of the pear and the ice cream.  So I made French style macarons with almond buttercream centers, but I purposefully overcooked my macaron cookies until they came out crunchy.  (I swear the overcooking was intended!).  (You’ve seen me talk about macarons before too.  For a complete discussion of French macarons, you must read Tartelette’s blog.  She is the queen of macarons and her food photos are divine).    

Here was the result: drunken pears with cabernet sauce, crispy almond macarons and toasted almond ice cream.  Love love love the beautiful color on the pears.

(*Fun fact: poaching is one of the 7 classical French techniques). 

More Fun with Pears: Brandied Cherry & Pear Tartlets

Somebody must love us, because once again we received a shipment of Harry & David’s Royal Riviera Pears.  Last year I made delicious Pear Pate de Fruits jellies with the pears we received for the holidays.  For Christmas dinner at Fin’s grandma’s house (Momma Big N), I brought Brandied Cherry & Pear Tartlets.  I actually pulled the recipe from my Epicurious iphone app while I was in the Whole Foods pondering what to make with them, because that’s where us modern girls get dessert ideas, or didn’t you know?  (For those few of you who have not yet downloaded the Epicurious iphone app, which I highly recommend, you can also find the recipe here.) 

I like making tartlets.  Somehow making a mini version feels like less of a baking commitment than making a full tart or pie, though the amount of work is really the same.  Once you have to bust out your rolling pin you’re in for a three hour baking project, minimum.  These tartlets took me nearly all day to make, but that’s because I had break down the steps and perform them one at a time during Fin’s scattered nap times.  

The brandied cherries (what are the holidays without a little brandy?) and pear filling had a nice tanginess to it, not too sweet, so it went well after our rich Christmas potluck dinner (which consisted of hickory smoked brisket, fig and gorgonzola mac & cheese, carrot soup made from carrots picked fresh from Big N’s sister’s garden, and walnut and goat cheese salad).  My crust came out nice and flakey, and I even got to use my mini maple leaf cookie cutter to add a festive design to these pretty little minis.  A sweet Christmas treat.  pear-tart-5-of-5

Holiday Baking: Treat Boxes

Nothing gets me into the holiday spirit more than baking (and eating) sweets.  I can’t consider the holidays a success until I feel a little tightening around my mid section.  After all, if I didn’t put on those few extra pounds in December then I would be lacking in new years resolutions.

For holiday treats this year I found these darling winter wonderland treat boxes from Martha Stewart (of course).  I bought enough boxes to make treats for my and Big N’s extended family, as well as our favorite co-workers.  Being home with the munchkin afforded me plenty of time for baking.  The treat boxes contained 4 smallish compartments, so my treat menu included the following:

  • Coconut macaroons
  • Peanut brittle
  • Pecan caramel turtles
  • Peppermint marshmallows

The coconut macaroons are a family favorite that I bake several times a year.  Fresh out of the oven they have a nice crunchy outside, but once stored they get soft and slightly gooey.  The coconut makes them a rich indulgence, perfect to eat with a cup of joe.  The macaroons require only 4 simple ingredients and are a snap to make.  Find the recipe here:  Coconut macaroon recipe.

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Fundraiser Apple Fun: Gala Apple “Cobbler Tatin”

Big N’s five-year-old twin godchildren are irresistible.  The energy when they burst into a room and bombard whomever is within range with smiles and hugs is enough to bewitch Scrooge himself.  So when the girls asked me to buy a bag of organic apples (at $20 bucks a pop~) to raise money for their grammar school I happily agreed, then let that bag sit on my counter for days before I realized that I should actually make something with them.  Apple cobbler tatin was what I came up with. 

A tarte tatin is basically an upside down apple tart made with caramelized apples.  I loved the idea of using alcohol soaked caramelized apples, but I wanted to make an easier biscuit-like cobbler topping for my dessert.  I dub this recipe “apple cobbler tatin.”  Gala Apple Cobbler Tatin recipe

I caramelized my apples in spiced rum and dried cranberries, but Calvados (apple brandy, strong stuff) works better if you have it on hand.  The apples cooked just enough to take on a gooey caramel quality, like a melted apple flavored Sugar Daddy.  I recommend using a non-stick pan for this recipe or you’ll be stuck soaking for days trying to get all the goo out.  The biscuit cobbler topping (which actually becomes the bottom when you turn the tatin upside down to plate) works well with the apples because it isn’t too sweet, think homemade shortcake.  I baked my tatins in mini-loaf pans.  The tatins held their shape nicely when turned upside down to serve.  Yummy gooey appley goodness with just a hint of the tasty rum on the tongue.  A splurge indeed, but it was for a good cause, of course. 

November treat: Pumpkin donut muffins

I’m absolutely addicted to receiving things in the mail.  Normally I’m a creature of instant gratification, but I do 90% of my shopping online because I actually enjoy waiting for the packages to arrive.  Once I place the order I forget about it, and then when my package arrives it’s just like receiving a present from a secret admirer, except of course it’s a gift from me to me.  I treat myself well. :-) 

Once a month I also receive a special treat from Martha Stewart: Everyday Food Magazine.  I’ve been subscribing to this magazine for 4 years now.  Each month when I see it in my mailbox I dance a little jig, run into the house, and read it cover to cover.  The recipes cater to my particular cooking style: simple, seasonal, and scrumptious (how do you like that for alliteration?).  I especially look forward to the November Thanksgiving issue because it offers new takes on Thanksgiving favorites.  Whenever I host our family’s Thanksgiving extravaganza, I always consult all of my old November Everyday Food magazines before planning my menu.

This month’s issue did not fail to inspire.  It featured a bunch of new pumpkin dessert recipes, including pumpkin bread pudding and pumpkin donut muffins.  I decided to reward myself for all this hard work caring for a newborn baby by baking the pumpkin muffins.  The pumpkin puree gave the muffins a nice color, and they turned out moist and delicious.  I slightly underbaked them to give them a little more of a doughy texture. I especially liked that they were finished by rolling each muffin in spiced cinnamon and sugar (and I added ground clove as well).   

I baked plenty of these fall goodies and took the extras over to my brother’s house for a Halloween treat for the family. 

pumpkin-muffins-5-of-5_0