Archive for the ‘Bread’ Category

The Christmas Dream

Pan d'oro

Pan d’oro

I don’t know if it is because of my propensity towards eating sardines before bedtime (a long story / another time), but I have noticed of late that I have been having some rather odd and perplexing dreams.

I am still pondering one that repeated a few nights ago wherein my subconscious spun a tale of spending Christmas with Mary, Mary Quite Contrary of nursery rhyme fame.

As fashioned by the festering chemical swirl of my cerebral cortex, Ms. Contrary was an exceedingly tedious young woman who made me long for a good, old-fashioned “Chinese food and movies” Christmas.

I bade her a Merry Christmas, only to be greeted by a bloated face held in a sour grimace as she informed me with a tap-tap-tap of her Rolex that we were still experiencing Christmas Eve; to whit, Christmas was nigh.

“Tut, tut” said I before remonstrating, “Be of good cheer else Father Christmas will not wriggle down your chimney to leave you gifts good and plain this holiday.”

Ms. Contrary would have none of it. “I’m a little old for Father Christmas don’t you think?” I could scarcely answer this apparently rhetorical question without suppressing a titter at the thought of the poor red and white velour-costumed, part-time Macy’s employee whose knees might be subjected to bearing the considerable heft of Ms. Contrary’s person should she choose that source to declare her holiday wishes.

In the hopes that a sympathetic soul might rescue me from this angry, vanilla-scented hillock in yoga pants, I stood on my tippy toes to try and catch a glimpse of other guests over her balustrade-like shoulder; alas, even fashionably late, I came to the suffocating realization that I was the first to arrive.

“Something smells delicious” I beamed, summoning every bit of sunshine I could muster.

“I made dinner” she glared. “When one invites people for dinner that usually means one serves dinner” she sassed with a twist of her head, spitting the last words at me.

“Ah!” I exclaimed, “I’ve brought dessert” and handed her my paper-wrapped, beribboned creation like a sacrifice being thrown into a roiling, steaming volcano.

With a drop of her shoulder she gave my creation a look similar to that which one would give a newly discovered rash.

“Ugh” she grunted. “You’re such a tool. I told you not to bring anything except wine.”

“Well you know I’m kind of a light weight when it comes to alcohol, and I do like to bake…” I started, before realizing that I had released the kraken.

“Are you saying I have a drinking problem? That I’m an alcoholic?”

“Oh not at all!” I squealed, attempting to back away from a cliff over which I had unwittingly placed one foot.

“Tell me you didn’t make those frosted cookies with the red and green sprinkles! Those are so grandma!”

“No, this isn’t cookies…”

“I knew it!” she boomed, stamping her large, but delicately shod foot. “A cake.”

“Actually it’s a Christmas bread.”

“You mean a Panetone?” she snorted with disgust. “I hate anything with that candied citron stuff. Oh no! Tell me it’s not a Stöllen!” she ranted, “I hate Stöllen.”

“None of those” I cowered, “It is a Pan d’oro.”

Wrenching it away from me with a dimpled paw, she quickly tore off the festive paper wrapping that had protected my masterpiece.

“For your information Mister Food Blogger, that’s a cake, not a bread. I hope you brought the powdered sugar to sprinkle over it.”

“But it’s called Pan d’oro which means bread of gold, and it’s made with yeast” I simpered before being reprimanded in the most severe way.

“It’s a cake, and I asked you to bring wine.  Anyway, you’re not getting dessert until you’ve had all seven fish courses. Get in there and start eating. March!

Wake me up in time for Christmas. Please.

Save Our Ship

Zwieback

good for what ails you

“You can’t set her on fire, you can’t sink her, and you can’t catch her.”

You’re reading a blog about baking, so your mind must be wondering: who on earth could this quote describe? Julia Child? No. The answer isn’t a “who”, it’s a “what”, although if you’re a sailor or naval-type you will debate the latter point.

The quote is attributed to William Francis Gibbs, the preeminent naval architect of his day, a man who designed over 5000 US Navy ships and the famous World War II “Liberty” ship fleet. So, which of those mighty battle ships was Gibbs describing? None. He was describing what I have always thought is the most beautiful ocean liner ever built, the s.s. United States.

It is not hyperbole to describe the United States as the culmination of Gibb’s life-long dreams, and, perhaps, the love of his life. (When asked which he loved more, the ship or his wife, his unblinking answer was, “The ship — a thousand times more.”)

Gibbs was many things: tough, profane, a self taught naval architect, and perhaps, as he has recently been labeled, the Steve Jobs of his day. That’s an apt description of Gibbs; the technological advances he built into the United States were true shipbuilding game changers.

A tough old salt he may have been, but it is worth noting that his firm employed women in key jobs, including the one who designed the propellers for the s.s. United States. (No small job by the way. The ship set records for speed that stand to this day, yet was noted for its lack of vibration, something that is usually caused by the propellers.)

After a couple of high profile ocean liner fires, he built the Unites States to the very highest standards of fire safety. Advertising for the ship often noted that the only wood on board was in the butcher’s blocks and the grand pianos. (Gibbs wanted aluminum pianos, but William Steinway proved that his wood pianos wouldn’t burn by inviting Gibbs to the Steinway factory, dousing a piano with gasoline and lighting a match. The piano smoldered a bit but didn’t burn, and Gibbs was satisfied.)

The s.s. United States was launched in 1951 and her career was heavily subsidized by the U.S. government until 1969 when the Nixon administration pulled the plug, sending her into a sudden and surprising retirement. Over the years she has changed hands many times, had her sleek mid-century interiors stripped away, and for the last seventeen years been tied up at a pier across from an Ikea in Philadelphia.

the s.s. United States: rusting,abandoned, but still beautiful

the s.s. United States: rusting,abandoned, but still beautiful

What’s amazing is that she still exists and hasn’t been sold off for scrap metal—yet. Now in the hands of a group that is trying to save the ship, she sits rusting, yet still as beautiful as ever. The group, the SS United States Conservancy, seeks to make her an integral part of a waterfront development, with New York, her former home, seemingly the favorite location. Personally I think she’d be very cool in New York City, docked next to the air craft carrier Intrepid, sporting her red, white, and blue smoke stacks, two sisters standing as testament to the highest examples of twentieth century American engineering and craftsmanship.

Unfortunately cobbling together the deal to recondition and place the ship in the right setting has been taking more time than the conservancy has money, so a trip to the scrap yard is a constant threat. (The conservancy reports they have only about two months in reserve for the ship’s current upkeep.)

In addition to the usual fundraising route, they have devised a very creative crowd-sourcing scheme—to which I am proud to say I have contributed. Save the United States is a great site where you can learn more about the ship and contribute to the conservancy by “buying” pieces of a virtual version of the ship. (I “own” fifty square inches of the First Class Observation Lounge. Please remove your shoes when passing through.)

Even if you don’t want to contribute, I recommend a visit to that site and to the conservancy’s main website, http://www.ssusc.org/ to learn about this great American creation.

You need not worry about getting seasick: it is a pretend ship, and I have baked an old seasickness remedy standby that was always available on ocean liners—including the United States.

Zwieback may be more familiar as a teething cookie for babies, but this mildly sweet, nutmeg infused toast is light as a feather, and its crunch can be intensely satisfying—and stomach settling. The recipe is available from the King Arthur Flour site. I recommend the full dose of nutmeg, but make sure to let the Zwieback cool thoroughly before eating or the nutmeg can be a little overwhelming. Try these dipped in some New England Clam Chowder. Or plain if you’re a little queasy.

And Bon Voyage!

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Whole Foods and me: a love story (gone wrong)

Spiral Bread

Spiral Bread

The people who run Whole Foods will, no doubt, be absolutely devastated to learn that I intend to never shop at their stores again. Shhhh. That noise you hear is them scurrying to hide under their desks so that they can curl into the fetal position and have a good cry at this news.

It’s not for the reason you think.

Many folks like to nickname the chain “Whole Paychecks” due to the (I think) inaccurate perception that their prices are higher. I’ve actually had great success over the years finding bargains on what I perceive to be excellent products. So what’s the problem?

Their stores are zoos. I just can’t stand it anymore. I’m not an architect. I’m not an anthropologist (well, not a professional one), and I have never worked in a grocery store, even as a bag boy (like the cool kids in my high school who all worked at the Triple A Market.) There are certainly other markets in New York that are equally crowded (that’s been the rap on Fairway for years.)

But there is something in the magic mix that is the Whole Foods shopping experience that is so anarchic, so impolite, so lacking in civility, so…unpleasant that I must conclude that life is too short to spend another moment struggling to navigate their aisles. I applaud their success. I applaud their aesthetic. I applaud their fish counter. But they are complete and utter failures at managing the traffic within their stores. Is it due to the carts that are the size of a humvee? Is it due to aisles that are perhaps too narrow? Is it due to their propensity towards placing islands of New Jersey blueberries smack dab in the middle of the most crowded part of the store? I just don’t know.

I’m the first to admit that I am a geek: I love to trawl the aisles of a supermarket. No matter what city I’m in the supermarket is one of my stops—even in Europe. It is an activity that brings me great pleasure. That’s why I resent Whole Foods so much: the experience of shopping in their stores (at least in New York City) sucks the pleasure out of the experience, making it a chore. There’s no time to discover new things: I’m too busy being in someone’s way. As I was checking out last weekend, the cashier, trying to be helpful, recommended that the best hours to shop at Whole Foods were early in the morning. I didn’t mention to her that I like to do my grocery shopping on my own terms, not when it is more convenient for Whole Foods.

I never did find what I had gone in there to buy. I wanted to make the incredible Spiral Bread you see in the photo above. This is based on a recipe from my beloved old Craig Claiborne-penned New York Times Cookbook. It is really just a hearty old-fashioned Farmhouse White loaf with a stuffing (You roll the dough into a flat rectangle, spread your filling of choice on top, roll jelly-roll style then place in the loaf pan and bake.) The cookbook gives recipes for two different kinds of fillings, one parsley and scallion, another anchovy-based (umami anyone?), both of which are yummy, but delicate.

With Super Bowl coming up, I wanted to make something with a bit more substance, ideally with some meat added to the parsley-scallion filling. On a previous trip to Whole Foods I had seen some very tempting American Speck, the herbal-infused ham. I thought that either the speck or some kind of Parma-style ham would give the bread the savory oomph I was seeking. (Hey, don’t laugh. I am trying to bring up the level of Super Bowl food. Sorry: not a Buffalo wing fan.)

Sadly the Speck was nowhere to be found at Whole Foods last weekend, so I switched to plan B: sausage. My thought was to cook some very nice sausage filling, drain it thoroughly, and use that as the filling.

I ended up experimenting with chicken sausage. Chicken sausage does not have the loose-knit consistency of pork sausage, but what it lacks in crumble it compensates with flavor and lower fat. Oh, and since it is pre-cooked I could skip that step.

You can see in the picture that I ended up dicing the chicken sausage. Looks odd, yes, tastes great, yes.

To give the bread a little heft I cooked some oats with the milk that goes into the recipe. You’d never know they are there because they dissolve as the dough kneads in the stand mixer.

Knead the dough by hand? Are you kidding? What is this 1962?

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Saccharomyces and me: a love story

Buckwheat Grissini

Buckwheat Grissini

There are times when cooking seems like a chore: when you’re tired, impatient, or just have other things on your mind. There are times when cooking seems like, well, cooking, a loving exercise in the care and feeding of yourself or your family. Then there are the times (and I think these are my favorite times) when cooking feels like an arts and crafts project. Baking, frosting, and decorating a birthday cake is really just a big arts and crafts project. Cookies and even the humble Rice Krispies Treats fall under that category too.

The exacting and repetitive nature of a lot of baking can turn people off. They don’t want to feel restricted by a recipe. They don’t want to feel restricted by decorating the same cookie in the same way dozens of times.

I don’t really consider myself a touchy-feely-tactile person. I don’t like slimy things, in fact, I won’t even wear my metal wrist-watch during the hot weather because it gets sticky from my perspiration. (The latter always makes me think of Grace Kelly’s heiress character in “To Catch a Thief” explaining why she doesn’t wear jewelry: “I don’t like cold things against my skin.” This was a Hitchcock movie, so the line is imbued with multiple meanings.)

Yet, give me some bread dough, and I’ll squish it and stretch it and slap it and roll it around like a little kid making mud pies. Any baker feels connected to the living, breathing organisms that bloat and puff a pile of flour and water. Every Sunday night as I make my pizza I often think that master potters have nothing on me; they’re working with a lump of clay. I’m working with millions of little yeasties, all seemingly holding their breaths at the same time so that when I bite into the crust it will be crunchy and chewy, tender enough to yield to my delicate middle-aged teeth, yet, up to the job of holding all that sauce and cheese. When the bell rings and I open the oven door for bread—or any yeasty treat—I always feel the tingle of a little miracle. Every time the timer rings a yeast cell gets it wings. They gave their lives for my slice of pie.

This past weekend I found myself in need of a little treat and a little soothing arts and crafts. I was craving savory, so I settled on Grissini. For a while back in the ‘90s any restaurant worth its salt greeted you with a stalk of home-baked grissini—usually with a mashup  of complex flavors. So while this project may seem as dated as a plate of blackened catfish, I contend that for the home baker in need of occupational therapy, baking grissini can be a soothing task.

My baking-geek passion of late has been experimenting with alternative grains. What I find interesting is that variation of flavors and texture these can lend to my yeasty treats. If 2012 was the year of spelt (which has now found a place in my weekly pizza), then 2013 has started off as the year of buckwheat.

I need to backpedal a bit here. Buckwheat is not actually a grain, it is the seed of an herbal plant. But that’s splitting hairs: do you care that the tomato is actually a fruit? No? Then you won’t care if buckwheat isn’t wheat.

I have a bag of buckwheat flour sitting in my fridge, the remnants of a blini and smoked salmon New Year’s Eve adventure. I’ve been eating buckwheat my entire life, perhaps because of my Russian-Jewish background. A bowl of Kasha Varnishkes (buckwheat with bow tie noodles) was never far away if there was a roasted chicken for dinner. My Pop enjoyed Aunt Jemima Buckwheat pancakes as a weekend treat (I don’t think Aunt Jemima makes the stuff anymore), and as an adult I have come to prize Buckwheat for its healthy dose of vegetable protein without the frou-frou of fat. Oh yeah: it tastes good too, kind of like a lighter, more moist version of cooked bulgur wheat.

So, while pulling the bag of type “00” flour I needed to bake the grissini, I spied the bag of buckwheat flour and thought, “Hmph, why not?”

A quarter cup of the flour replaced an equal amount of the white flour, but went a very long way towards darkening the dough. I was cautious as buckwheat lacks the gluten that the yeasties need to puff the dough.

The arts and crafts portion of the program involved the actual rolling of the little ropes. Too much flour on the board and you don’t get enough traction to roll them into ropes, too little and they stick and squish to the board. A little flour dusted on my hands then patted on each portion of dough was just the touch needed. The actual shape is very forgiving, as lumpy and bumpy are the order of the day as long as you make them somewhat uniform in length.

I went old school with flavorings relying on poppy seeds, sesame seeds, garlic powder, and sea salt. Happily, they bake with relative speed—about 15 minutes, but sadly, if you’re not careful they’ll disappear even faster.

They can be a bit addictive.

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Click here for the Buckwheat Grissini recipe

Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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A Child’s Thanksgiving in wails

Pumpkin Chocolate Cloverleaf Rolls

Pumpkin Chocolate Cloverleaf Rolls…boom

My sister Fran is a poopie-head. That is my honest, adult, unvarnished, truthful, insightful, well thought out appraisal of this thoroughly disappointing woman. Think George C. Scott as General Patton crossed with Glen Close as Cruella de Vil. Add maybe a sneeze or two of Susan Hayward in “I Want to Live!” There ya go.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING, EVERYONE!

In true American tradition I will be sitting at Frau Fran’s table this holiday eating her Turkey. She, in turn, will throw that in my and my other siblings’ faces forever. This is a delicate game of checks and balances. Yet, as dreadful as I have made the day sound, it is not without its rewards. I do love the meal. I have offered to host the meal myself many times but La Reina (another of my nicknames for Fran) insists—INSISTS—on hosting it. As with so many other things we have to do as a family, she bullies, coddles, bribes, threatens, and pouts until she gets her way. There have been years when I have been tempted to “call in sick” but my Mother won’t hear of it.

It is hard for Fran. Life hasn’t been easy. She married a man who was born without a brain, so she has had to think for two for nigh onto thirty years. (My Aunt Polly insists that Fran’s husband was also born without a spine, but that’s a whole other slice of pie.)

Clearly the parsnips won’t be the only bitter thing at the table this holiday. Yet, if you think about it, is there a better day for families to gather around their collective grievances than one on which they can drown said grievances in a big meal and a fat tanker-sized glass of moderately priced wine? I think not. You can keep your one hundred fifty dollars an hour family therapists. Bury your heartache under a pile of Ritz cracker stuffing, that’s what I say.

And speaking of football…

Over the years we lesser siblings who orbit Planet Fran like so many Moons have developed our own quiet rebellion—strictly sub-rosa but nonetheless well organized and quite virulent. The red wine stains on Fran’s favorite damask tablecloth? An accident, I assure you. The fact that every year Molly, Fran’s Cocker Spaniel, has an “accident” on the white living room rug? Chalk it up to the excitement of the day. (Hint: In those long-ago TV commercials Andy Griffin used to say, “Everything sits good on a Ritz.” Unfortunately Ritz don’t sit so good on Molly’s tummy. Good GIRL!)

No, Fran for All Seasons doesn’t stand in her kitchen for days on end cooking the big meal. She buys all of it pre-cooked, including the turkey, which she reanimates in her Magic Chef. What she fails to realize is that this reduces her martyrdom by a large factor. She doles out the money to Larry (that’s Mr. Fran) who then gets to pretend that he is the hunter / gatherer / breadwinner / head of the family by schlepping around town gathering the catered items in The Mercedes That Time Forgot.

Fran of a thousand faces has a knack for ordering good food—I’ll give her that—which is a surprise considering her sustenance is usually derived from a freezer full of Lean Cuisine. There was one disastrous year when she decided that she would start a new family tradition and serve a Honeybaked ham. This was met with howls of dissent, so equilibrium (or Librium) and roast turkey was restored the following year. But here’s my truth: as much as I love turkey, if you cut into it and found that it was made of bread I’d probably love it even more. The Thanksgiving bread basket? That’s my jam, yo.

It was my well-known love of the bread basket that sparked what has always been the most overt example of rebellion against Generalissimo Fran. It started as a dreadful act of violence directed at yours truly. I simply asked for the bread basket to be passed. Innocent as a lamb. Okay, there may have been the merest touch of an edge in my voice…and I may have labeled the bread basket with an adjective that I cannot print in a family blog. But really, just in good fun.

Anyway, before I could even slam the table with my fist and shout, “NOW!” it seemed like every roll ever baked since the beginning of time was being thrown at me. Thank goodness we’d already polished off the Parker House rolls I had baked, for their buttery goodness would surely have stained my handsome shirt.

As one good turn deserves another I was left only with the option of returning the salvo as best I could, after all it was eleven against one (my Mother had also lobbed a Pillsbury Crescent roll at me but you can’t return fire when it’s your Mother. I found out the hard way that that’s true in Paintball too.) (She’s fine.) (Now.)

When winging bread at folks it helps to first judge the distance of your target, the weight of the object being thrown, and the age and relative health of your target. Example: those hearty whole wheat raisin rolls are great for that sourpuss, bratty teenage niece with the big mouth, but for Granny stick with sliced bread thrown with a gentle Frisbee motion. However, please be advised that you should check with the bratty teenage niece’s parents prior to the meal to make sure she hasn’t already had her Sweet Sixteen Rhinoplasty. Either way it gets her out of the room.

Naturally one can game the system a bit by insisting on bringing home-baked rolls. This technique presents two advantages. The first is that you can make practice batches and sharpen your accuracy. The second is that it gives you complete control over the weight of each projectile dinner roll, therefore letting you adjust for age, height, and health of target.

I have gleaned from years of experience that the common Cloverleaf roll makes ideal cannon fodder for a Thanksgiving dinner. While they have a bit of heft, they don’t have the volume or mass of the whole grain raisin roll. They are also vaguely ball-shaped. This makes them safe for a wider range of targets: even Granny can survive being dinged by one, although it may hasten that day’s nap time.

I have been known to bake yearly commemorative varietal batches and give them as gifts. The saffron version was quite delicious, although the resulting orange splotches on the walls required that Fran-tasy Island have her dining room repainted. But these are mere trifles taken in the context of the larger picture.

This year I decided it might be fun to add a touch of sugar, pumpkin, and chocolate to them. This lightly sweetened treat was inspired by Nancy Reagan’s well publicized Monkey Bread recipe. What better model of familial dysfunction has there ever been than the White House Reagans? These will make a calming respite with a cup of morning coffee.

And the chocolate should make some lovely stains on Fran-tastic’s dining-room walls.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

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Donate to the American Red Cross to support Hurricane Sandy relief. Please.

Meister

Honey Oat Pretzel

Honey Oat Pretzel

I never developed a taste for beer. This is kind of a shame, as I find the art of beer making fascinating. Why wouldn’t I? Beer making—the art of the brew meister—is really close to baking. They create recipes the same way I do. (That Autumn Pumpkin Pilsner didn’t just “happen” you know.) We both use yeast too, and I do love my yeast.

No, this blog isn’t about making beer at home. That brings to mind The Three Stooges, but there‘s only one of me (although clearly my barber and Curly’s went to the same school.) Supposedly my grandfather made his own root beer, something not uncommon in his day, so someday maybe I’ll give that a shot.  For now I will stick with what I know which is…uh, oh yeah: baking.

I was flipping through one of the many food magazines out there (I forget which) and saw an article about making pretzels. My immediate thought was that this would be a fun thing to do.

Then I read the article.

They were writing was about making “real” pretzels, and required boiling them in water spiked with food-grade lye (“…available in some Asian markets.”) Now, I don’t mind a complicated recipe (ok, within limits) and I don’t mind hiking down to an Asian market—not a tough chore here in New York—but I wanted and expected something more along the lines of, “Hmmm, I think I’ll make pretzels / abracadabra they’re done / break open some brewskies.”

Food-grade lye? Seriously?

I should explain my love of the pretzel. My dad was hooked on the big, unsalted ones that came in a box. They were hard as rocks, and for my Pop, I think the charm was in their granite crunch. I seem to recall that he also liked to chew ice cubes. Yes, his Dentist had battle fatigue. I think of my dad when I eat pretzels, and this is likely why I reach for pretzels when I have agita.

Then, there was The Great Pretzel Obsession of 1995. I remember it like it was yesterday: a couple of friends and I were hooked on honey oat pretzels, although I’m vague on the brand: Bachman’s, Rold Gold, or were they Snyders? They had just a hint of sweetness, and just a touch of salt. It was hard to not mindlessly eat a whole bag in one sitting. Hard, but not impossible. Ahem.

I thought it might be fun to reference that slightly sweet, slightly salty character in something I could make at home. No, my home kitchen cannot produce the crunch of a big commercial oven, but what I can do is better: something chewy and warm from the oven.

Soft, baked pretzels are a traditional big city item. Many years before food trucks my Mom bought me a soft, baked pretzel from a street cart on my first visit to New York. I actually remember that it was burnt and not very good. But its pull-apart chewiness had enough charm to last several blocks before the burnt parts and my undeveloped childhood attention span caused me to lose interest. (Thus, I was introduced to my first New York City trash can.)

A basic Fleischmann’s Yeast recipe for pretzels was my starting point; a bit of doctoring introduced a good shot of honey, and, because oats tend to dissolve into bread dough, I used oat bran for a bit of grainy texture.

I passed on anything even resembling a boiling step, and went straight to baking my little coiled delights. A little brush of egg wash helped them brown beautifully and helped the restrained dusting of sea salt stay put.

I’m not much of a drinker—this would perhaps disqualify me as a brew meister—but warm from the oven with a stein of Boylan’s Diet Root Beer these pretzels make a quiet night in front of the TV into a real party.

But, hey, that still makes me a beer and pretzels guy.

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Here’s the recipe for Honey Oat Pretzels

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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Far Yeast

Hong Kong Sausage Buns

Hong Kong Sausage Buns

“Hmmm. No. Let’s keep walking.”

We continued walking along Mott Street. It may as well have been Mars for all I knew. I’d always found Chinatown a bit dizzying for a solo venture. I’m afraid of eels—or am I just grossed out by them? Either way, I pictured myself tripping and falling into one of the eel-filled vats in the sidewalk displays the fish mongers maintained. Love that fishy smell.

So, it was good to have an ally, a guide, who knew the lay of the land. My Asian friend would poke his head into various restaurants, look left, then right, and the search would continue.

I asked what he was looking for—the criteria he was using to judge where we’d stop—and he replied, “I’m looking for a place with no white people.” The stricken look on my pale face wordlessly begged the explanation that he was trying to avoid the touristy places in favor of the more genuine “neighborhood” spots where the locals eat. The irony was not lost on me: if I ate there his rule would be broken. But I was hungry and kept my mouth shut.

Finally we found just the right place. It was a little noisy, the more so because so many of the folks were seated around large round tables, creating a party atmosphere.

We had come downtown in search of Dim-Sum. Every Dim-Sum restaurant has a little bit of the Ziegfeld Follies in its spirit. I always picture leggy showgirls dressed as egg rolls and scallion pancakes descending a glowing staircase.  The truth is admittedly a bit balder: waiters and waitresses parade by with trays of small items like red bean buns, egg rolls, and chicken feet. As you select from the passing flotilla, your little plates pile up. Later the waiters use your pile of plates to calculate the bill.

By the way, I don’t consider myself a devotee of chicken feet…who does? But eating them is considered good luck, and I’m as superstitious as they come, so I ate chicken feet. No, I didn’t mind them (tastes like chicken!), and no, this blog is not about preparing chicken feet.

I immediately realized my affinity for this kind of eating. Small bits and variety: that’s for me. If you’ve never had Dim-Sum, it is a very amenable way of eating, and usually very social. It is sort of a low stakes game for trying something new, like chicken feet. If you don’t like them, you haven’t committed to an entire meal of them, and they will soon be replaced by something else. (The reverse also holds true: if you fall in love with something you can make a whole meal of it, provided they don’t run out.)

Dim-sum is often a breakfast meal, and as odd as that sounds on this side of the globe, it can actually be deeply satisfying at that hour. But later in the day you have the advantage of seeking dessert after—for if you are an old fogie like me you still cling to the “no dessert before lunch” rules. Sensible and old fashioned? I guess so.

When I mention Dim-Sum to people I often get a vague flash of recognition. When I mention Hong Kong-style bakeries to people I get blank looks. To my mind though, the two things go hand in hand. Admittedly that is due to habit: when I finish a meal of Dim-Sum there is generally a Hong Kong-style bakery a few steps away. But there’s a synergy of style too.

I would also make the argument that Hong Kong-style bakeries are an extension of the Dim-Sum brand. The concept is similar: good things in a small package. I cannot however make the claim that everything at a Hong Kong-style bakery is dessert, for much of it falls into the savory category.

There is a certain vanilla simplicity to the items you’ll find. This is to be embraced because it speaks to a certain predicable consistency. The bread has an almost super-charged fluffiness, and if the flavors don’t exactly jump out at you, they don’t overwhelm you with sweetness either. Balance? Yin and yang?

I’m a big fan of Cream Rolls which are simply buns filled with coconut buttercream and sprinkled with a touch of coconut. But I also find the Sausage Rolls appealing, and if that doesn’t fall under the usual provenance of dessert-time, they can still make the claim of being a prime late afternoon snack with a tumbler of bubble tea, the creamy tea drink that first found its way into the world via Hong Kong bakeries. (The bubbles are actually oversized tapioca pearls.)

The question in my baker’s mind has always been: how do they get the bread so reliably soft? A little internet research revealed the secret: tangzhong.

Sounds mysterious, like some kind of herbal or tuberous ingredient that you could only find in Asia, right? Wrong. It is very basic bread-making science.

Here’s the concept: when baking bread you want to develop the gluten which is the protein in flour. Sometimes having tough gluten is desirable (chewy bread), but sometimes it’s not (Hong Kong buns).The easiest way to soften the proteins is to cook the flour with a bit of liquid. A slightly slower way, popular amongst artisanal bakers is called “autolyse”, a fancy name for letting the dough sit for a while to let the flour absorb the liquid.

So what is tangzhong? Just a bit of flour cooked with water or milk until the mixture thickens (the work of just a few minutes), and then allowed to cool (the work of…okay, an hour maybe two.) Just as with sourdough starter you add a bit of this to your dough.

While Hong Kong sausage rolls are usually filled with hot dogs, I decided to up the ante slightly by filling mine with something a bit fahncy: a good quality chicken and turkey sweet Italian sausage. You can try a breakfast / brunch version filled with maple sausage or chicken and apple sausage, but I think the basic sweetness of the bun really seems to call out for something savory.

In spite of what I just said, you can use the same recipe to make the Cream Rolls mentioned above, either in the “horn of plenty” style picture above (you’ll need to bake the dough on cannolli or cream horn forms), or by just baking ovals, slicing them down the top New England Lobster roll style, and filling them with a pastry bag. If coconut isn’t your thing, you can also fill the buns with a Nutella-Whipped Cream mixture.

But those sausage rolls…if my barbecue is rained out this fourth of July holiday you know what I’ll be eating.

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I followed the Hong Kong Sausage Roll recipe on “Christine’s Recipes”

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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Land of the Rising Tweet

How’s that spelt?

Spelt Breadsticks

Spelt Breadsticks

My Mom is obsessed with a cinnamon roll.

This is not to be confused with the icky, sticky, cinnamon buns sold in malls. This is more from the old-fashioned breakfast roll school: barely sweet, a little crusty, and fun to pull apart. My use of the word “obsessed” is not a joke; she must have this roll with one of her meals every day. Such a story about someone my Mom’s age—and we won’t deal in the banalities of specific numbers here—brings to mind what they say about the one hundred-plus year old folks in small Siberian villages who smoke two packs of cigarettes a day: hey they lived this long, they must be doing something right.

If my tone registers with you as being a tad judgmental, it has more to do with what gets paired with the cinnamon roll than the choice of the roll itself. (The cinnamon roll comes from only one specific bakery near where Mom lives.)

Who am I to judge? For if I am to be truthful, I must admit that the little gourmet here is just as apt to do the same thing.

My Mom and I have similar food habits. Although she’s much guiltier of this than me, we can both plead guilty to being able to eat the same thing every day for months. Alas, these obsessions don’t have a happy ending. I can lunch on the same salad or sandwich daily until one day, unannounced, my appetite declares that it simply will not tolerate a repeat performance. While hardly a tragedy, I have been known in these situations to stand on a corner looking this way and that, desperately clueless about what I should have for lunch. (It usually takes a few days of interim foraging before I settle on my newest lazy lunch choice obsession.)

I say it all the time: you can put the most miserable slop in front of me, but if there’s something good in the bread basket I won’t complain. If one man’s feast is truly another man’s famine, then it would seem futile to plan a meal in the hopes of keeping everyone happy.

So, what about – like my Mom’s current bread obsession—designing the whole meal around the bread? Sure, there are sandwiches, but even with sandwiches the calculation is usually filling first, bread second. I think this may be a way to keep everyone happy. Of course, it has to be good bread.

I’ve been down the “bread as utensil” road before, and it can be a bumpy ride, indeed. It works with miraculous Indian breads like chapatti and naan, but then I could make an entire meal of just those. The bumpy ride was a meal from another part of the world where I was left bereft of satisfaction. This failed because neither the bread nor the food being scooped by the bread were satisfactory.

What if we used the bread like a combination utensil, sandwich loaf, and fondue dipper? Prosciutto with melon is a good example of this concept; antipasto, main course, and dessert, all in one slender snack. The problem here is that the melon is a bit slippery. Bread is rarely—if ever—slippery. Clearly the better choice.

People often wrap grissini, the skinny, crunchy breadsticks, with a ghostly shaving of prosciutto. This is promising. You can also make a great dipping dessert with grissini—like the Poky sticks from Japan. But grissini lack the oomph required that could make them meal worthy.

That’s why I’m nominating the hearty-but-deceptively-light Spelt breadsticks for the gig. I had never baked with spelt before. It brings the whole grain flavor and nuttiness to the bread without the weight and grit of whole wheat flour.

Many people used to think that spelt flour was suitable for those folks on gluten-free diets, but this is not true. It does have its benefits though, like the lightness I just mentioned.

The breadsticks themselves are generously proportioned, not unlike a small loaf of bread. Serve these standing like soldiers in drinking glasses surrounded by assorted antipasti ingredients, and perhaps some flavored olive oil for dipping. A nice warm weather meal, yes?

Please don’t mention to my Mom that I compared her to the one hundred-plus year old folks in small Siberian villages who smoke two packs of cigarettes a day.

She doesn’t smoke.

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Here’s the Spelt Breadstick recipe.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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You’re tweet…

Cheesy Easter

Vermont Triple Cheese Bread

Vermont Triple Cheese Bread

If you invite me for Easter dinner I promise to bring the bread. How much bread depends entirely on what you are cooking for the main course. If you’re cooking a Ham (or buying the spiral-cut kind) I’ll bring a loaf or two and some nice rolls. Lamb or mutton will mean I’ll need to rent a U-haul and make two trips. You’re serving mutton just like your Grandmother used to make? My Grandmother used to make Pickled Tongue but you don’t see me serving that for dinner. Easter dinner tip #1: stick with a main course you don’t have to explain.

In the past I’ve written that I consider a good bread basket to be the lifeboat that can rescue me from a bad meal. Talking mutton and lifeboats conjures images of a culinary Titanic.

Better yet, here’s a novel new idea: The First Annual Easter pot luck. The menu will be comprised solely of the items everyone in attendance gave up for Lent. With my friends in attendance there may be an oversupply of martinis and red wine, but that’s okay because there will also be an oversupply of cake, cookies, and ice cream. It’s called balance, people.

And yes, the point is moot for yours truly. Giving up things for Lent is literally not in my religion, but I can’t resist an occasion marked by a big meal.

How can Easter not be on my mind? Easter candy has been on the shelves of every drug store for what seems like months, the squishy, mellow neon of the Peeps calling my name like a Stay-Puft siren.

This is a good place to mention one of the landmarks of my kitchen: my recipe files. These could perhaps be mistaken for a paper recycling bin. I have a tendency to keep empty flour bags because a recipe printed on the side caught my eye. They tend to sit on the shelf for a while, waiting for an occasion when I will smooth out the wrinkles and bring them to life.

So it was that a long expired bag of King Arthur flour was reincarnated because of the words, “Triple Cheese Bread” printed on the side.

(I am not a paid spokesman for King Arthur flour and did not receive so much as a dusting of flour for this endorsement.)

I’m not sure why I felt like I needed an excuse to bake Triple Cheese bread. This is one of those recipes that deserves the reverse: a day of its own. I imagine that I’ll wake up one morning with the exhortation, “It’s Triple Cheese Bread Day!” on my lips.

In the meantime there’s Easter Dinner. Easter Dinner always holds an interesting allure for me. As much as I love winter, April always seems full of the warm promise of good things to come. (I was Bar Mitzvah-ed in April. Maybe that’s why I like April?)

Depending on the year, April can be both the last gasp of winter and the first whiff of spring, so it is time to celebrate with sun, flowers, and happy food. I think Triple Cheese bread is happy food because it makes me smile.

I repeat this often: if you have a Kitchen Aid stand mixer then baking bread is really no harder than knowing how to set a timer. As this is someone else’s recipe I can only tell you my tips to success.

First: because all of the ingredients in bread can blunt the flavor of cheese, find the sharpest cheddar you can find. This can be tricky. I happened to find a Vermont cheddar by Cabot that they labeled “Seriously Sharp.” Its brininess turned out to be just right. (I’m not a spokesman for Cabot either. But I like this cheese and the implied harmony of pairing Vermont flour with Vermont cheese.)

Even though it may be counterintuitive, I avoided top shelf Parmesan, hoping that the modestly priced domestic version I used would lend enough saltiness and nuttiness to the bread—using the good stuff in a loaf of bread seems like a waste.

The third cheese seems like a cheat. Cottage Cheese? The name aside, I never think of this as cheese, but baking chemistry hints that this is a really good baking ingredient, tenderizing the dough into a pillowy soft foam.

Finally, here’s your choice: I used a loaf pan that is slightly oversized so my bread rose with flat top; use a standard load pan for the old-fashioned dome shaped loaf.

Triple Cheese Loaf isn’t just for dinner. The legendary Schrafft’s restaurants used it famous cheese bread in sandwiches, often pairing it with, what else—grilled, sliced ham.

Did I mention that it is amazing toasted?

No, I didn’t, because you’ll eat the whole loaf that way.

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Here’s the Triple Cheese Bread recipe.

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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Marshmallow Tweets?

Drift away

Cuban "style" Bread

Cuban "style" Bread

A cherished old photograph of my grandfather hung on my wall until recently when it mysteriously crashed to the floor. The glass broke, and the frame cracked, but thankfully the picture, probably a century old, survived intact.

It was kind of fun to take it to be re-framed for I hadn’t really looked that closely at it for a long time. As I studied the face of my twelve or thirteen year-old grandfather I noticed how much my Mother looks like him. The resemblance in some cases may only be apparent to me—the straightness of the upper lip and the set of his eyes— but nevertheless it is there. This drew me toward my mirror. How much of those little jigsaw pieces found their way to my face? The older I get the more I notice the resemblance to my Mother, so therefore I must have some of his features too.

I have always noticed that I also have a similar attention span to that of my Mother: zero.

This becomes apparent when I watch movies or TV or go to the theater. Five minutes and my mind has gone elsewhere. I will often catch myself and remind myself, “You’ve been looking forward to watching this show for days, PAY ATTENTION!”

Often I find myself with a particular group of friends for a night of watching some special event or another on TV. This usually involves Chinese or Vietnamese food, and dessert. Sadly, whatever knockout attire Brad and Angelina may have been wearing on the red carpet goes swiftly off my radar in favor of a second taste of “Goi Du Du”, an amazing green papaya and spicy beef salad we always order.

That answers one vital question: just where does my mind go when it drifts away? Answer: the buffet. Fortunately I have retained some measure of self control over my appetite, along with a sense obligation to my friends. “Put down the fork and PAY ATTENTION!”

(I became aware of this one time when a friend said he had the impression that the rest of the world disappeared when I eat.)

Okay, sorry. I enjoy my num-num, what can I say? But it isn’t just idle daydreaming that is happening when I drift away. Generally I am thinking, “How did they make this?” or “What’s that little flavor in the background.”

If the food is terrible—or even worse, non-existent (No!), I start thinking, “I wonder if I can pick something up on the way home?” This is accompanied by a quick estimate of how far out of my way this will take me.

The worst, of course, is “the bad sandwich.” I have used quotation marks to indicate a bit of drama. We have all been held captive by “the bad sandwich.” The unique selling points of “the bad sandwich” are: rubbery wraps, flavorless cold cuts, and unidentified sauce.

Not long ago while choking down a bad sandwich I made a vow to never be guilty of such a sin. As we’re about to enter Super Bowl / Award Show season I am prepared to make good on this commitment and naturally I am starting with the bread.

As we live in the era of the wrap I understand that many people consider the bread portion of the sandwich to simply be an edible bit of dinnerware—a food carrier. I consider the bread to be an integral part of any sandwich. Bad sandwich bread is like bad frosting on a cake.

I cherish the crunch of the crust and the chew of the inside. (Too intense?) Here’s my acid test for good sandwich bread: if it squishes when you go to cut your sandwich the bread is unsuitable for sandwich use. Here’s my suggestion. Use Pan Cubano, Cuban Bread.

This bread has a hearty, crunchy crust, and a sturdy interior that doesn’t melt away when you throw a bit of mustard on it. By design Cuban Bread is meant to be squished and take it with a smile. A Cuban sandwich is pressed like a Panini but without the grill marks. It is usually filled with ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, but don’t feel hemmed in by its habits. Just pay tribute to me, and fill it with lots of flavor. This is no place for mild deli meat; this is the land of tangy cold cuts, and a bit of pepper.

Cuban Bread’s stocky demeanor also lends itself to a bit of off label use because it makes the best garlic bread ever.

If you’re a beginner to bread baking you’ll find this to be one of the simpler bread recipes around, although I don’t recommend attempting it without a loyal, trusty Kitchen Aid to do the work for you.

On the other hand, if you choose to do without the stand mixer, you can always log baking Cuban Bread as an upper body workout.

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Click here for the recipe for Cuban Bread

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Write to me at the email address below with any questions or thoughts you may have. Thanks!

Let me email you when the blog has been updated! Opt in by clicking the biscotti at right or by sending your email address to michael@butterfloureggs.com

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Looking forward to the warmer tweets…

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