two cakes, part two.

DSCN0765

DSCN0769

DSCN0764

I’ve wanted to make this cake ever since Deb Perelman posted it on the Smitten Kitchen site sometime last spring. I don’t know if it was my obsession with bees, or the story of trying and trying but never getting the cake quite right, or the description of the cake itself, but Bee Sting Cake? It sounded great. I just never had the energy to make a yeasted cake, though. So I didn’t.

Then, when I was in Munich, I defended my thesis and stopped at the bakery on the way home. It was 9:30 in the morning and Daniel was going to be hard at work back at home. I wanted to get some treats for us to have as a mid-morning snack to celebrate me defending my thesis… and lo and behold, there, on the bakery shelf, was bienenstich! Obviously, I bought two huge pieces. The shop boy carefully wrapped them up in paper and I carried them, triumphant, back to the room. We feasted. Then Daniel said he felt sick, because he never eats sugar for breakfast.

So, now that I have a wonderful kitchen here in Sweden, I set out to actually make the darn thing. I had the perfect occasion: Johanna and her sister Matilda left on Tuesday morning to go travel around New Zealand for three weeks! They were giddy on Monday night thinking about all the adventures they were about to embark upon. I know that feeling. Now that they’ve been gone a few days, I am seeing a few of Johanna’s beautiful photos pop up on facebook, and so I know that they are having a great time.

It makes me smile to think of these two sisters traveling around together. They are both a combination of practical and whimsical. Johanna is a biologist who is also training as a teacher and is quite artistic as well. Matilda has been doing more on the artistic side, but is now preparing with exams to go into medical school. Actually, she’s the more practical one. Johanna will take pictures of everything on her phone, seeing beauty in every object and every angle. She’ll get distracted talking on the phone. She is a wonderful, fun, joyous, presence. Matilda is as well, but she’ll give a huff of friendly exasperation every once in a while.

“Johanna! We should go down to meet the taxi!”

“I know, just a minute!”

“What are you doing in there? Are you… you’re cutting your fingernails. Are you serious? We have to leave and you are cutting your fingernails?”

As my other housemate Marta said, they are in some ways very different, but they get along so well. The teasing is all in the name of love. “I wish I had that relationship with my sister,” Marta said. “We’re just different.”

Anyway, on Monday afternoon, the dough didn’t seem to be rising at all. I decided not to freak out. And in the end the cake tasted fine, and certainly wasn’t a brick. However, the bienenstich I remember from Munich was ridiculously light and fluffy, unlike any yeasted dough I’ve ever eaten. So that was one big difference; maybe I know, now, why Deb had such a hard time getting the recipe right. I couldn’t find instant yeast in the grocery store here so adapted to use active dry, which may have affected the rising and the behavior of the dough.

I was also too lazy to stuff the middle of the cake with pastry cream – something I really would like to do next time! But never fear, if you leave it out, the cake is still delicious. I upped the amount of salt in the topping and so it had a bit of a salted caramel taste. Yum yum yum.

two cakes, part one.

DSCN0763

Most of my friends know that I reallllly like to bake. And cook. But baking is something particularly satisfying: you follow some instructions, maybe it’s scary and complicated, but in the end, if you do everything you’re told, you come out with the end product you were supposed to get. It’s so great! That never happens in life. Over Christmas break I had my baking fix when Min Ya, Kristel, and I made an extremely complicated bûche de noël. I think they were a little incredulous as we were making the four different parts, and it didn’t turn out quite like the picture but it was still beautiful and very tasty. Maybe then they started realizing why I’m hooked on baking ridiculous, over-the-top complicated desserts.

I’m now living in Uppsala in a real apartment, with a real kitchen and all the kitchen-y things inside. So I finally, for one of the first times since beginning my masters program, can do some serious baking. Last week my roommate Marta’s boyfriend Gonçalo arrived from Portugal to work at the department here for a month, so it seemed like the perfect occasion for a cake. Marta and Gonçalo and I all lived on the same corridor in Flogsta during my very first semester in Sweden. So I was pretty excited to see Gonçalo again coming back to visit!

This is a heavy, dense chocolate cake. It’s tangy with buttermilk (or filmjölk, an even thicker version they have here in Sweden) and tastes slightly of coffee, with some seedy sweetness of raspberry jam and a thick coating of ganache. Mmmmm.

(A note about the ganache: it’s a great trick, covering a cake with ganache. The cake can be, like really ugly, but then you dump this chocolate mixture on top, swirl it artistically, and let it harden. Nobody knows how ugly the actual cake part used to be. In my case this was good, because while the house has many things, it only had one actual cake pan. The second pan that I used didn’t have the same finish in it and when I tried to remove the cake from the pan…. disaster. It was in a lot of pieces. I cobbled it back together, and then the ganache hid the whole thing. And! Ganache is super easy to make. I think I may use it to cover everything now.)

Welcome Chocolate Cake

Preheat oven to 325, and grease two round cake pans. Do whatever your chosen magic is to ensure that the cake won’t stick to the pan – flour it, dust it with cocoa, just grease it, you do you.

In a bowl, mix:

2 cups all purpose flour

3/4 cup cocoa powder (natural, not dutch process)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups dark brown sugar, lightly packed

Into the middle of this dry-ingredient mixture, add:

3 eggs

1 cup filmjölk + 1/4 cup water, or, just 1 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

two tablespoons instant coffee granules dissolved in 3/4 cup hot water

Mix everything together until the mixture is smooth and uniform. Divide between the two cake pans and bake for about 40 minutes (check after 30 minutes). Let them cool ten minutes in their pans, then try to turn them out onto a cooling rack.

Once the cakes are cool, place one on a platter. Spread the top with a thin, but not too thin, layer of raspberry jam (not jelly). Place the second cake on top of the first one.

Make a ganache: this means equal parts cream and chocolate. I did 250 grams of dark chocolate and 250 mL heavy whipping cream, and it was a little too much, but who doesn’t want to have some leftover chocolate? Anyway, cut up the chocolate into very small pieces and put it in a bowl. In the meantime, heat the cream in the microwave or on the stove until it is almost boiling. Then pour it over the chocolate and stir, stir, stir. Eventually the chocolate will melt and the mixture will become thick and uniform. Let it cool for a bit until it begins to thicken up, then use a spatula to spread it all over the cake, like a chocolate casing.

As the cake cools, the ganache will harden into something almost like a shell.

bread art.

My favorite kind of Daring Bakers Challenge is one where I am not really sure what hit me. I love learning about food that I didn’t even know existed, food that is exotic and exciting, food where I see a picture and think, I couldn’t make that, no way.

October was a bit like that. I didn’t think “no way”, but I did think, wow! That’s amazing!

The Daring Baker’s October 2011 challenge was Povitica, hosted by Jenni of The Gingered Whisk. Povitica is a traditional Eastern European Dessert Bread that is as lovely to look at as it is to eat!

I bake a lot of bread – it’s been months since I bought any from the store – but most of mine is the plain-jane sandwich variety. On special occasions, I used to make fancy bread, but it hadn’t occurred to me in a while. If I make something fancy, it’s usually dessert these days.

But the povitica – man, oh man, did the photos Jenni posted get me psyched. Her bread was beautiful, full of contrasting dark and light swirls. It was like cinnamon bread gone crazy – and I was pretty sure it would taste even better than cinnamon bread, too. She listed several possibly fillings, but I stuck with the most basic, a ground walnut affair with sugar and spices.

So, about those ground walnuts. First of all, they were supposed to be English walnuts. I wasn’t sure what kind of walnuts we usually eat, but it turned out that it’s them, so that was a relief. My next project was to grind them. This is going to be a pain in the butt, I thought; we don’t have a food processor. I looked doubtfully at my housemate’s coffee grinder. I was pretty sure there was a good reason NOT to put the walnuts inside, like that they were too oily and would turn to paste, but it was so tempting…. I poured half a cup in and started grinding.

Guess what. Walnuts are too oily and turn to paste in a coffee grinder. Great!

After painstakingly scraping the quasi-walnut-butter out of the grinder and into a bowl and then washing out the grinder and wiping it clean, I had to move on to Plan B, which was unfortunately chopping the other cup and a half of walnuts with a big kitchen knife. My knife skills are okay, but it took forever. To achieve a texture like ground walnuts, you have to get the pieces really, really, really small. Like powder, basically. So that was fun.

Luckily, everything else went smoothly. I made the filling by adding milk, butter, sugar, vanilla, spices, and an egg to the walnuts, and let it sit while I rolled out the sweet dough very, very thinly. Bread dough is stretchable and the rolling was a lot easier than when I was trying to make baklava! (Also, it probably helped that I only had to make one piece of dough…) It was challenge to get the dough thin enough to see through without ripping it, but by rolling the dough, picking it up to stretch it, and repeating, it actually didn’t take too long before my counter was covered in a huge, translucent sheet of bread dough.

The next part scared me a little. I spread the filling onto the dough, trying not to rip it as I went, and hoped that it wouldn’t be too heavy for the bread dough. I spread and spread, and then tried to roll the dough up, jelly-roll style. There were a few places where the dough was so thin that the filling kind of seeped through and got stuck to the counter, making it harder to roll, and I was really nervous. But nothing ripped and at the end I had a long roll of dough. I actually stretched it to make it longer, and then coiled it up in the pan according to Jenni’s instructions.

After a very brief rise, I brushed the top with a little bit of pumpkin butter dissolved in water – I wanted to give it an orange glow – and put it in the oven.

When it came out, it definitely had a pumkiny tinge to it. Not orange, exactly, but pretty. I was happy with how it turned out, and amazed that the dough had held up so well; I had expected some of the filling to leak out into the sides of the bread pan, but there was no sticky stuff to be found, just a nice-looking loaf of bread that hinted at a surprise inside.

And what a surprise it was. When I sliced the loaf open (it was difficult to wait until it had cooled!) the swirls were there in stunning fashion. I was glad that I had spent so much time chopping those darn nuts, because the filling really had become a paste and showed up in clean, crisp lines against the rolls of the dough.

What about the taste? Even if the bread hadn’t been good, I would have loved it. But it was good. The walnut filling was delicious, which was good since it made up such a high percentage of the bread’s volume! It had a hint of spices, but wasn’t overly cinnamon-flavored, which I thought was really nice; almost all of the breakfast and dessert breads we make seem to be cinnamon-heavy. This was more refined and incredibly tasty. And while it was sweet, sugar wasn’t the dominant flavor, either.

All in all, I was super impressed with povitica. It made me excited about making fancy bread again, and I would really like to try another kind of filling – poppy seed perhaps? This bread is sure to make a reappearance around the holidays. Thanks Jenni for a great challenge, one of my favorites by far!

As always, check out the other beautiful creations over at the Daring Kitchen website.

 

Newtons.

 

I have a fig tree in the backyard. How incredible is that? Like apricots, I didn’t even really know you could just, like, eat a fig. It’s crazy world out here.

I started by making some fig jam. And my housemate made some balsamic-fig sauce. And I made a fig frangipane tart. And we ate figs. That used up the figs for a while… and then the second crop came in. They came in and they were almost rotting on the tree. Ack! All of this while we were inundated with blackberries and in the midst of making blackberry jam and blackberry pear sauce. Figs! So good! But what were we going to do with them?

It happened that we had been hiking, and our friend Autumn had been eating fig newtons. Hmmm. That got me thinking… I bet you could make fig newtons. And I bet they’d be really good.

I got kind of curious about what makes a fig newton a fig newton, so I went Joe Pastry all over it and delved into the interwebs. It turns out that fig rolls have been around for thousands of years, and were eaten by sailors around the Mediterranean and Middle East to stay healthy. There’s one myth that newtons are named after a Syrian Jew named Nuhtan who farmed figs in the 15th century, but I’m not sure if I believe it. What is indisputably true is that fig newtons in the form known by American schoolkids were invented in the early 1890s and named after Newton, Massachussetts. The U.S. went from consuming fairly few figs to being the largest consumer in the world based almost wholly on the popularity of the fig newton.

So I didn’t really get my answer about what defines a fig newton, but I did get some interesting history. I based by recipe on one from food52, a wonderful site, and used entirely whole wheat flour in the cookie part.

In the end, they were pretty much what I was hoping for: fig newtony, with a cakey cookie and a sweet, sticky filling, but more grown-up, and a lot more tasty. The fig filling had orange juice and spices in it; I am not sure what Nabisco puts in their newtons, but citrus and spice is a very nice thing to pair with a fig. It was GOOD.

I’m pretty sure that you could make fig newtons using dried figs and just soak them in boiling water until they plump up, then cook them. No promises, but if you have nostalgia for the snacks you had in your lunchbox in elementary school and don’t live in a figgy locale, I’d say try it!

What a great after-work snack. Yum.

Fig Newtons

Adapted slightly from a recipe by vrunka at food52.

Cookie/Cake Dough

5 tablespoons butter, melted3/4 cups packed brown sugar2 eggs1 teaspoon vanilla extract2 cups whole wheat flour1/4 teaspoon baking soda2 teaspoons baking powder

Stir together the melted butter and brown sugar, then add the eggs and vanilla. Mix in the flour, baking soda, and baking powder, and chill in the refrigerator for about an hour. In the meantime, make the fig filling.

Fig Filling

12 smallish pound figs
1 pear
3/4 cups brown sugarzest from 1 orange
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Cut the figs and pear into very small pieces and place in a saucepan with all the other ingredients. Heat over low heat at first until the sugar dissolves in the juices of the fruit, then heat over medium heat, at a low boil, until the mixture is thick and jam-like. It will gel further as it cools, so you don’t have to wait until it is completely thick; don’t turn it into cement! Let the filling sit and cool for half an hour at least before proceeding.

When you’re ready, divide the dough in half and roll each half into a large square. From here, you have a couple of options. If you want to be fancy, cut each square into thirds, so you have six long rectangles. Put the fig filling down the middle of each rectangle in a strip and then fold the sides up over the top, just overlapping in the middle. Cut into squares and you have your fig newtons – place them on a greased cookie sheet. If you want to be lazier, line the bottom of a greased square or rectangular baking dish with some dough, spread some of the fig filling on top, and then top with another layer of the rolled out dough. You can cut them into squares after they are baked. That’s what I did. The original recipe instructions say to bake for 10 to 15 minutes at 375 degrees; I baked mine in a cob oven, so I can’t comment on baking time and temperature!

sunny pie for a rainy day.

Let me sum this pie up for you: it’s a stew, wrapped in a croissant. How could you possibly go wrong with that?

I must admit that I have been eating abysmally. First we were camping, and then I was tired. I’ve had too many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, too many bowls of oatmeal, and I am ashamed to say that I may have even eaten a can of tuna for dinner one night. It’s been grim.

On an entertaining note, I just got enrolled in state health insurance here in Oregon, and I was urged to take this online health assessment. So I did. It told me that my health score was 63 out of 100, which seemed terrible until I saw that the average score was 54. Really, America? Okay, I guess I’m not that surprised. But it turned out that my diet was one of the main reasons I scored so poorly. I had filled out that I ate 2 servings of fruits and veggies per day, 3 of whole grains, and 1 of nuts and seeds. That was all. I guess that looks really bad, but they only asked about low fat dairy, and I drink raw milk, which is whole! They only asked about lean red meat; I don’t cook red meat for myself very often, more often choosing pork or chicken. And they didn’t ask about eggs. Or beans and legumes. Or all sorts of other things. Anyway, they told me that my diet was very unbalanced and I needed to meet with a nutritionist. I laughed a little.

Perhaps part of the reason that my eating habits have been so bad recently is that it has been raining. Nobody wants to ride their bike to the grocery store in the rain, much less ride to the farmer’s market and walk around in the rain. But today I decided that this monkey business had to stop – I swear that this was not related to the health assessment – so I sucked it up and drove my car over to the grocery store.

Yesterday, I had been looking for recipes for dulce de leche or confiture de lait (I later realized that I didn’t have as much milk as I would need, so abandoned the idea). On my way I came across a wonderful Australian food blog which had this recipe for chicken, leek, and fennel pie with cream cheese pastry. I love pies. I love fennel. I was hooked, and the ingredients in the recipe became my shopping list for today’s venture to the store.

For some reason I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough filling in the pie, so, never one to leave well enough alone, I added one more ingredient: a giant golden beet. I like purple beets, but golden ones add an extra bit of sweetness which I thought would compliment the fennel well. An unusual combination, for sure, but I was ready to try it.

To make the pie filling, I sautéed up the chicken, then the fennel, leek, beet, and garlic. I added some white wine, chicken broth, and flour to thicken it up, plus thyme and rosemary. It took a long time to reduce the liquid, but in that time, my kitchen began to smell amazing. Fennel isn’t something that everyone likes, but I like it. And you can’t deny that it smells divine.

The crust…. how to describe the crust. Butter, flour, salt, and I made a substitution of crème fraiche for the cream cheese. It required a little bit of water to come together, but turned out fine. I knew as soon as I added the crème fraiche that this crust was going to be unusual. It gave the dough a different texture, very flexible, very light, very stretchy. It was a breeze to roll out, although I had to generously flour my countertop to keep it from sticking.

And when it came out of the oven. Wow.

When I cut into the pie, the crust crinkled and crunched. It was airy and didn’t feel like a pie crust. I slopped some out onto a plate and steam poured out with the filling, which was golden like the beets and the sunshine I was so dearly missing.

The pie was phenomenal. The crust, as I said, was like a croissant in texture, but a little tangy because of the crème fraiche. The filling was lovely – the dark meat from the chicken thighs I used was so much more pleasing than the white meat you find in a traditional chicken pot pie, and the taste was more spicy, more complex, more warming. It had never really occurred to me that you could make a chicken pot pie that was different than the yummy, comforting kind you are served at New England church suppers. But this pie was just as comforting in a more interesting way. It’s good to try change every once in a while.

Unless you’re one of those anti-fennel folks, make this pie! Thanks to Citrus and Candy for a great recipe. The crust will definitely stay in my repertoire!

Sunshine Chicken Pie with a Crème Fraiche Crust

Adapted from Citrus and Candy

3 boneless chicken thighs
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
3-4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 leek
1 fennel bulb
1 golden beet
1 cup white wine
3/8 cup white flour
1 cup chicken stock
a couple each of thyme and rosemary leaves, finely chopped

1 ½ cups plain flour
pinch of salt
11 tablespoons cold butter
½ cup crème fraiche
a couple tablespoons cold water

Start by making the filling. In a large pot or pan over medium heat, melt the butter until it just starts to turn brown. While it is heating up, cut the chicken thighs into half-inch cubes (or a little bigger if you want). Toss them in the olive oil and salt, and then add them to the butter in the pan, cooking until done. Place the chicken in a bowl, leaving as much of the butter in the pan as possible. While the chicken was cooking, you could chop up the vegetables: garlic into a small mince, the leek in half lengthwise and then the white parts only into 1/4-inch semicircles, the fennel and beet into half-inch cubes. When the chicken is out of the pan, toss the veggies in and cook five to ten minutes, depending on the size of your pan, or until they have softened in the chicken-butter. Then add the white wine and crank the heat up. Cook until the volume of wine is decreased by half. Add the flour, stir quickly, and then pour in the chicken stock. As the mixture starts to thicken, throw the chicken and herbs in as well and continue cooking, stirring often, until the filling is as thick as you want it for your pie. Put it in a bowl in the refrigerator to cool as much as possible before using in the pie.

For the crust, when you are ready, put the flour and salt in a bowl and then chop the butter into the bowl as well. Use your fingers to mix the two together, breaking the butter into smaller and smaller pieces and incorporating it with the flour. When the butter is in pea-sized pieces, add the crème fraiche and stir with a fork until the dough is as well-mixed as possible. Is it still too dry? Add some water, but be careful not to make it too wet. When you can mush it into a ball, stop and let it rest in the refrigerator for ten minutes.

To assemble the pie, take the dough out of the refrigerator and divide it into two slightly differently-sized pieces. Flour your counter well, and your rolling pin, and roll the larger piece into your bottom crust, stopping frequently to reflour and make sure that it does not get stuck to your rolling surface! Place it in a greased pie pan, the bigger the better – there’s a lot of filling! Next, roll out the top crust. Pour the filling into the pan, place the top crust on top, pinch the edges, and put the whole thing in a 450 degree oven. Bake for five minutes before turning the oven down to 425 and baking for another 20 to 25 minutes, or until the top is golden.

Gardens, flowers…. stigmas, saffron rolls (& tons of pictures)

My trip to Atlanta – which I’m now back from – was excellent for many reasons. I had a great time with my grandparents, who I haven’t seen nearly enough of in the last few years. College was too busy for me and so the last year or so has allowed me to catch up with my family, finally.

But while I would have been happy to sit at their house and simply spend time with them, my grandparents had more in store for me. On Tuesday grandfather Pete and I went to a Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the High Museum. I saw more than 200 amazing black and white photographs – many of Cartier-Bresson’s native France, many set in the U.S., some from India – including from Gandhi’s funeral – and a photo-essay about the Great Leap Forward in China, among many other settings. The photos were beautiful and many showed unusual and artistic composition. It was a huge treat. I miss the days when people made prints in a darkroom.

On Thursday, we went to the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

I will never think of a botanical garden the same way again. I pictured, well, just a big garden with lots of plants and signs telling me their names. I love plants and flowers, both because of my scientific interests and because, like anyone else, I appreciate beauty – so I was excited for the trip, but I had no idea what I was about to encounter. I found a happy, dynamic space – which even included a whimsical, educational children’s garden – full of not only flowers but sculptures and statues, ponds and fountains, trellises and plenty of creative landscaping.

I also didn’t expect that the botanical garden would have a large herb, vegetable, and fruit tree section which fed the hungry. Way to go, botanical garden! For some time now I’ve had a dream that more Americans should have small gardens. Maybe incorporating edible plants

We spent a lot of time in the Conservatory and Orchid Center.

Walking into the conservatory was like entering a new world.

Orchids reigned supreme. So did rainforests.

Color. Shape.

And so it was only appropriate that the last thing I cooked for my grandparents came from flowers.

My grandfather had been requesting saffron buns all week, so we finally picked up some saffron at the store and I got cooking. Saffron is frequently touted as being the most expensive spice in the world. Its price tag is thanks to the labor required to produce it: saffron threads are the stigma, or pollen-receving reproductive parts, of a Crocus sativus plant. Each crocus has just three stigma, which must be painstakingly collected.

My grandmother had a recipe for saffron buns, but she said that it sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. It also had lard in it. The only thing I ever put lard in is pasties, and I wasn’t quite ready for lardy rolls. So I looked elsewhere for inspiration, settling eventually on Scandinavian Santa Lucia buns, even though the season isn’t quite right.

I think that when I was in elementary school and read about the Santa Lucia tradition, it was the first time that I wanted to be Scandinavian. I wanted to be one of those blonde-braided girls dressed all in white with a wreath of candles on my head. Since then, I have accumulated many much better reasons to wish that I was Norwegian or Swedish. (Sidenote: I am ashamed to admit that I learned about Santa Lucia by reading Kirsten’s surprise, an American Girl doll book. Because my parents never got me one of those dolls, they seemed super cool. Thanks, though, mom and dad, way to stay strong. I learned about Swedish immigrants anyway.)

The saffron threads are red, but as soon as I dropped them into hot milk, they began spreading their signature yellow color.

Eventually, I had made up a dough that used not lard, but butter – thank goodness! After a bulk rise, I quickly shaped the buns into their signature scrolls in the eight minutes left before dinner (a shrimp alfredo made by my grandfather – yum!) hit the table.

And then I baked them while we ate dessert. In fact, I forgot about them while we ate dessert. But at some point I remembered them and after being terrified that they would be burnt into blackened lumps, I found that they were unharmed, and shiny with their quick egg glaze (it’s my new favorite way to make sweet breads look fancy). The smell when they came out of the oven was tantalizing. Even though we had just eaten dinner and dessert, we split one of the still-hot rolls between the three of us.

When it’s by itself – which it was in these rolls, which lack any other spices – saffron is noticeable, but subtle. It’s not a flavor that I have often encountered, but I loved these rolls. They are unique. And honestly, even if saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, you can splurge on a packet to make some rolls every once in a while. It’s not going to break the bank.

Definitely submitting this one to YeastSpotting!

Santa Lucia Saffron Rolls

adapted from Lunches Fit For A Kid, a blog loaded with cuteness

1 cup milk
1 1/2 tsp saffron threads
3 tsp active dry yeast
1 egg
1/2 cup melted butter
1/2 cup sugar

1 tsp salt
3 1/2 to 4 cups flour

glaze: 1 egg, and a bit of water

Start by heating the milk until it’s almost boiling. Add the saffron threads, crushing them with your fingers as you sprinkle them onto the milk. They will immediately dissolve a bit. Stir and let sit for ten or so minutes. The milk should still be fairly warm after this. Add the yeast and let sit another five minutes. I do all of these steps still in whatever vessel I heated the milk in so that it can retain as much of that heat as possible. Then, pour the milk-saffron-yeast mixture into your actual mixing bowl. Add the egg, beating well, and then the melted butter, sugar, salt, and one cup of flour. Stir until you have a lumpy but fairly uniform mixture. Add two more cups of flour and stir again. Add more flour until you have a dough that is cohesive and kneadable without making too much of a mess on your hands. Turn dough out onto a floured counter to rest while you wash out the mixing bowl and smear it with butter. Then, knead the dough for five minutes, place it in the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until doubled in size.

Next, divide the dough into quarters. Divide each quarter into three equal-sized portions and shape each portion into a rope, eight or ten inches long and of a uniform thickness. Shape the rope into the S-shape shown in the pictures above: start wrapping one end into a circle which coils around itself. When you have used a third of the length of the rope, switch and wrap the other end up in the opposite direction. Push the two spirals toward each other and wrap further, if necessary. Transfer all of the rolls – there should be twelve – to a greased baking sheet and let rise for another hour at least.

Finally, brush with an egg glaze made of one well-beaten egg and a glug of water, whisked together. You can brush it on with a pastry brush or just your fingers. You won’t even come close to using up the whole egg, but that’s a problem I haven’t yet figured out how to deal with. Bake the rolls at 400 degrees for 15 to 25 minutes, or until they seem done.

What To Do With Too Much Bread.

I made this bread pudding almost a month ago now. It was tasty then, but I was in the midst of a cooking spree and didn’t have time to write about it.

What made me remember it now?

Last night I went out to dinner at The Bee’s Knees in Morrisville, which is much classier than its website might suggest. In fact it is an extremely nice, really cool restaurant. We ate a couple different things which were all delicious, but one thing – wow! It was a baked pear, topped with local brie melted into a gooey puddle of goodness, drenched in warm maple syrup, and served with excellent crusty bread. How could four ingredients make something so amazing? And why had nobody thought of this combination before? We ate the pear as an appetizer, but afterwards we didn’t need dessert. It was, well, incredible (so was the fish special, but that’s another story).

That pear has very little in common with my bread pudding, but what I thought was, simplicity. Sometimes you need to choose a few very good ingredients instead of a lot of very good ingredients. I remember a frittata which I used to make. Originally, it was a mushroom-leek frittata. I thought, this is really good; more must be better. So I started adding more and more of my favorite vegetables. But it didn’t get any better. It didn’t get worse, exactly, but the mushrooms and leeks were enough to make that dish sparkle.

I thought that this asparagus bread pudding was something like that. The asparagus is enough to make a fantastic bread pudding. But the more I thought about it, I realized that even though this is easy to whip up, it’s not actually that simple. There’s the bread. The asparagus. A shallot and some mushrooms. Cheese. Eggs and milk to hold everything together. Not too complex, but compared to the pear, it’s far from simplicity personified (or dish-i-fied).

It’s a great bread pudding, though. And you don’t often think about bread pudding; or at least, I don’t. But you should – it’s an excellent half of a meal. Think about it. Make this one. You won’t regret it.

Savory Asparagus Bread Pudding

Adapted slightly; from Hands-Off Cooking by Ann Rolke via Heidi Swanson at 101 Cookbooks

4-5 slices of white(ish) sourdough bread

3-4 slices of whole wheat multigrain bread, especially nice if it’s a little nutty

3 cups milk

3 large eggs

1 teaspoon salt

a dash of pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried dill

1 bunch of asparagus

6-8 crimini mushrooms, or the darkest mushrooms you can find without spending a fortune

1 shallot, sliced thinly

3/4 cup finely grated Gruyère cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and prepare grease tart dish, or some other baking vessel, to cook the pudding. Then start chopping up bread. Cut all the slices into 3/4 inch cubes, although varying the size a little bit makes things more interesting. Put all of the bread in a large bowl and mix it up so the white and multigrain cubes are evenly distributed. In a separate bowl, mix together the milk, eggs, and seasonings. Pour it over the bread and stir so everything is evenly coated. Finally, chop the asparagus into small (1-inch?) pieces, chop up the mushrooms, and slice the shallots. Toss all of these things in with the bread, and the pour the entire thing into the tart pan. Stick in the oven.

Bake for 30 minutes, then take it out and sprinkle the cheese over the top. Return to the oven for 15 or so more minutes, or until it’s quite brown and crispy-looking.

Le Cake.

I haven’t been cooking much recently. Or: I haven’t been cooking much interesting food. We’ve been traveling nonstop to races – a week and a half in Rumford, Maine, almost immediately followed by three days in Lake Placid – and cooking on ski trips is rarely exciting. It’s a lot of pasta, stir fry, and other basics which are tasty but uninspired.

Luckily, when I was home for the holidays I had enough culinary adventures to satisfy me during this boring interlude. I wrote about Christmas dinner, but I neglected to mention that I made a giant, very fancy cake for dessert that night. I think the cake might have taken about as much energy as the entire rest of the dinner, as well as approximately the same number of special ingredients, so it deserves its own post as well.

I’d had my eye on a particularly spectacular cake since April, I kid you not. I had dreamed about this cake for months, but never even thought about making it. For one thing, it is a huge cake. I only make layer cakes for birthdays, and this one never seemed right. Secondly, I never had any hazelnuts. Those are expensive little suckers.

But on Christmas, I had to pick something for dessert. We traditionally have pie, but since I was completely abandoning tradition with regards to dinner, I figured I might as well make something completely wild for dessert as well.

And so: triple caramel cake, a recipe from Melanger, one of the food blogs that inspires me quite often. If you look at the photos of the cake, you’ll see immediately why I wanted to make it. It’s beautiful! Also, I love caramel. And hazelnuts. It seemed like a classy cake. A winter cake. I went for it.

I made the cake layers themselves early on Christmas morning, even though I was exhausted and could barely function in the kitchen. Still, I knew that the rest day would be hectic – I had to make a roast and a dinner for five people! – so I managed to whip up some cake.

The one problem with the layers was that they sunk a bit in the middle. This is a problem I’ve had in the past with cakes with a dense crumb, and I’m not sure how to solve it. Luckily, with a layer cake, you can just fill the dents with more frosting, so it isn’t a huge problem. Frosting can cover up any number of blemishes….

Once I was over at my grandfather’s house and the dinner was in the oven cooking its merry way along, I tackled the buttercream. It isn’t a true buttercream, but luckily for me, it is modeled after an American buttercream, and doesn’t have any egg in it. The one time I tried to make a real French buttercream, it didn’t go very well. But this frosting was a cinch to whip up. Instead of mascarpone, I used quark. Quark, a soft European fresh cheese, is one of my new obsessions. The Vermont Butter and Cheese Company makes a good version.

So: buttercream complete, I started assembling the cake, which meant trimming up the cake layers first. I got to sample some of the cake trimmings and confirm that the cake was in fact delicious. Then I frosted the cake, much less elegantly than Julia over at Melanger did, partly because I wanted to actually use up the buttercream.

The last step was to make the top look fancy. I started making the praline and…. it was a terrible disaster. I won’t elaborate. But it ended with me boiling some water in a pan and hoping that my grandfather wouldn’t walk in and ask me what I was doing. I  pressed the hazelnuts into the frosting, minus their praline, and then drizzled on some store-bought Vanilla Bean Caramel from Fat Toad Farm, a goat creamery in Brookfield, Vermont. Highly recommended for putting on top of ice cream, in baked goods, or just for eating. I’m jealous that my grandfather got to keep the rest of the jar.

So: the finished product was revealed after dinner, and we all ate slices which were much too big. It’s a big cake. It’s a rich cake. It’s a delicious cake. Definitely worth the time and effort, although I can’t say that I will make it again unless another fancy occasion pops up. Did it live up to my expectations? Not quite. But my expectations were pretty high. And part of the reason it wasn’t as good as I was hoping was because it didn’t look as nice as the one Julia made. But we can’t always be perfect. I am an amateur home baker, after all. Thanks, Julia, for inspiring me, as always.

Triple Caramel Cake

recipe adapted: from Trish Deseine’s Caramel via Melanger.

Cake

3 ½ cup plain flour
1 1/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons white sugar
8 eggs
2 cups salted butter (4 sticks), or use unsalted butter and a dash of salt
2 teaspoons baking powder

This is a really, really basic cake. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Then pour them into two largeish round cake pans lined with parchment paper. Bake the cakes for 30-40 minutes. Let them cool 5 or 10 minutes, then turn them out onto cooling racks. That’s it.

Quark Caramel Buttercream

1 ½ lb powdered sugar
1 ½ cup unsalted butter, slightly softened
1/4 cup caramel sauce
1/4 cup quark

Cream the butter and powdered sugar together in a bowl until it is smooth and no longer lumpy. Add the caramel sauce and the quark and continue beating until smooth. The buttercream should be sweet but slightly tangy as well from the quark. Sample it to see if you want to add more caramel to give it a stronger flavor.

Assembly/Finishing Touches

1 cup toasted hazelnuts
more caramel sauce

Trim the cake layers so that they are flat on top, not domed, if necessary. Then, cut one of the layers in half. Put one of the half-layers on your cake stand or platter, and plop some frosting on top of it. Then put your full layer on top of that. Then frosting. Then the last half-layer, crumb-side down. Frost around the outside and add an extra thick layer on top.

Press the toasted hazelnuts slightly into the frosting on top of the cake, just so they stay put. Drizzle caramel sauce over the whole thing; I think it looks nice to have some drips headed down the side of the cake, but others might think that’s just sloppy.

Épis de Blé

My bread is often appreciated, but is rarely remarked upon. Baked goods aren’t exactly a scarcity at our house.

This bread was different though.

“That bread you made was really good,” Matt said. “What was different about it?”

“Yeah, it wasn’t that different, but it was just so good,” said Ollie. “I had to restrain myself from finishing it all in one sitting.”

I consider this a victory, and told them that the more compliments they gave me, the more bread I would make.

I call this bread “épis de blé”, but that’s actually just the term for the shape of the loaf. The buns coming off the main stem are supposed to look like a stalk of wheat. And you can see it, even though mine was not as delicate as some. I didn’t take any chances and checked the shaping technique in my old handbook, Hamelman’s Bread. And they were great instructions: make a long, skinnier loaf than usual; hold the scissors at a very shallow angle and cut, parallel to the roll, almost all the way through the dough. Then pull each of the buns off to the side to form the “grains” of your wheat.

You can make this shape with any type of dough, so the shape alone wasn’t want made the bread tasty.

The recipe came from the February 2009 issue of Gourmet. Of the 13 issues of that magazine that ever arrived in my mailbox, this one was by far my favorite. The recipe caught my eye because of the unique shape of the loaf, but I was wary about the recipe itself. There are (or were) only a few bread recipes in Gourmet, and I had worried that maybe it meant they were lacking in bread expertise and the recipe would suck. I had baked enough bread to be a bit of a snob.

I baked it the first time that winter, minus the épi shaping. It was pretty good.

Recently, I got inspired to try the bun/roll recipes from this issue again, but using sourdough. This is the first recipe I tried, and I think the sourdough really improved it. Perhaps it’s my personal preference for sourdough talking though.

So in answer, finally, to Matt’s question: the bread was barely different at all from my usual sourdough loaf. I used honey instead of sugar, and a small amount of cornmeal mixed in instead of the wheat or rye flour. That’s all.

I would definitely urge you to try it, and even try the shaping, which looks difficult but is not. It makes a beautiful loaf, and one of the few tasty enough to get a comment from the boys!

I’m sending this one to YeastSpotting, as usual.

Crusty Sourdough Épis de Blé

(adapted from “Crusty Cornstalk Rolls”, Gourmet Feb 2009)

1 to 1 1/2 cups fed sourdough starter

2 cups warm water

2 teaspoon honey

1 tablespoon salt

5 cups white bread flour

1 cup cornmeal

Stir together the sourdough starter and the warm water until the structure of the starter is broken up a bit. Then add the honey, salt, 2 cups of flour, and the cornmeal. Stir into a slurry and then add more flour, a cup or half-cup at a time, until you have a nice, though slack, dough to work with. At this point turn the dough out onto the counter to rest for 5 minutes while you clean the mixing bowl and smear some olive oil in it. Knead the dough, adding flour as necessary, for a few minutes until you have a smooth ball. Plop it back into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise 2-3 hours.

Once the first rise is complete, divide the dough in half. Shape each half into a long, narrow log – like a baguette – and let rise, preferably supported from the sides so it spreads up rather than out, for one hour.

Preheat your oven to 425°. Once it’s hot, throw a few ice cubes in to moisten the air. While they evaporate, transfer the loaves to your baking sheet and cut the them into the épi shape. Using a good pair of scissors, take shallow cuts in the direction of the loaf. You can cut most of the way through the log. After you’ve made a cut, pull the upper part of the dough over to one side, so that the point is toward the edge. Alternate which side you pull the “grains” to.

Put the baking sheet in the oven, and throw a few more ice cubes onto the bottom to create more steam so you get a nice crust. After 15-20 minutes, open the oven and rotate the pan 180°. After 5-10 more minutes, take the loaves out! Be sure to let them cool before you move them from the pans, because they are delicate and will break.

Photos: a day in the life of a full-time ski racer.

I read somewhere that in order to develop a readership for your blog, you should only ever write about one thing. That way, people know what to expect and won’t be disappointed when they come looking for one topic and find something completely unrelated.

Well, I haven’t followed that rule, have I? I write about what I do and what interests me. And in any given day, that can be a lot of things. I wanted to share, visually, one day in my life, so that you can see what it’s really like. I was lucky enough to get Pepa to take some pictures of our workout this morning to start us off.

Click photos to enlarge.

At 9 a.m., we headed out on a 90 minute rollerski, classic, with ~23 minutes of threshold in the middle.

Threshold means working hard, but not too hard. This wasn’t a time trial although the course was identical to our usual time trial course. You don’t want to build up lactic acid in high quantities, but rather work at a level just below that, where your body can clear the acid quickly and efficiently. Threshold should feel good, and today it did for me (some days I’m tired and it doesn’t). The tape on my arms is to combat tendonitis in my elbows, which I developed to a debilitating degree last summer from the impact of my pole tips hitting the pavement. I’m considering getting cortisone injections this year. Also, I’m not sure if you can tell, but my poles are bright pink. I spray-painted them: no more boring black! It cheers me up every time I ski.

It started pouring as we were skiing back to our cars. It was a hot day, though, so the rain felt good.

The Craftsbury Public Library was having a used book sale, so Lauren and I drove up before lunch. I came home with three books I had bought at the sale (for $5 total), one which had come in on interlibrary loan, and two movies we had picked out to borrow. But when will I have time to read all these books?

After lunch I baked the loaf of sourdough which I had started before our rollerski. When I bake, I usually make two large oval loaves, but with the boys away in Bend, we’ll go through bread much slower. Anna has a really nice round brotform which she lets me use, as well as a lame.

In the afternoon, we had practice with our elementary school skiers. Algis Shalna, one of the US Biathlon Team coaches and a former Olympic gold medalist for the Soviet Union, was on hand to teach the kids about biathlon.

Shooting was the exciting part. Not being a biathlete, I was there to direct the kids in a bounding workout in between their shootings. It was very hot and I felt bad asking them to bound up the hill three times before they could go back to shoot again. But not too bad… you have to toughen them up a little!

After a quick break to put my feet up and recover from standing around in the sun and the 80 degree heat, I headed out for my second workout of the day, a 2-hour bike ride. I traipsed about for 33 miles, touching at least the corners of Craftsbury, Wolcott, Hardwick, and Greensboro.

I got the chance to appreciate some beautiful scenery on my ride, like these happy cows in a green, green field.

I was late for dinner because my ride took so long – I swear the same route didn’t take 2 hours last year. Lauren had done a shorter ride, but she had also shot with Algis earlier in the afternoon. We were both exhausted. Dinner was heavenly, thanks to the dining hall staff: roast beef, braised chard, a rice-nut loaf, baked potato, the usual excellent salad bar. The cooks had made homemade ice cream, too, in cardamom ginger, maple vanilla, and chocolate flavors, to be topped with chocolate sauce and raspberries. They really outdid themselves this time.

We were both exhausted, but managed to drag ourselves to a birthday party for one of the staff members. They burned a hollow log, which they stood up like a chimney; it burned from the inside out, throwing a large flame out the top. I forgot my camera, but the way the millions of sparks flew out and into the night sky, dancing around on the breeze, was beautiful. They all landed on in the grass, and I couldn’t help but feel lucky that the lawn didn’t catch on fire. There was also a very delicious pistachio cake from the Edelweiss Bakery in Johnson.

Every day is different, and not every day is a Saturday, but this is a taste of my life. For some full-time athletes, being an athlete is enough. But for many of us, it is not enough, and we have to pursue our other interests at least to some extent. We have to remain human, not become physiological machines, and we have to balance ourselves mentally. That’s why you’ll find me writing about baking and farming and the environment and pretty much anything that pops into my head.

Oh, and isn’t Vermont beautiful?