Swiss baked goods you win as prizes, ranked.

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Photos, left to right: my own; Einsiedeln-tourismus.chwikipedia.

This weekend I went to Rothenthurm for a 22.5k skate loppet. Rothenthurm is quite close to Zurich and probably one of the lowest-elevation places you’ll ever race in Switzerland. The snow was not fantastic – it’s basically a moor or fen of some sort, so there’s a lot of water bubbling up. This turned into yellowish ice which was in some parts covered in a thin dusting of snow, and in others not. In a few of the drier spots there was grass poking through, or gravel dragged up by the groomer.

The ice did make it fast though – the race was over before I knew it, which was very okay!

I saw a lot of crashes in this race which were caused by peoples’ skis slipping out from under them on the ice as they pushed off one leg. It happens so fast and all of a sudden you’re on the ground. I narrowly avoided this fate twice, and the effort to keep my legs under me made me really sore the next day. At one point a spectator cheered as I managed to pull myself back together after a about six teetering strides in a row. Thanks for the support, random Swiss person! It actually means a lot! My mere 15 days on snow this year showed.

I was feeling pretty flat, but it was fun to race in a group of four women all fighting for third place. It was the first time all year that I’ve actually skied with other women in a race! Of course there were lots of men skiing with us too (and sometimes cutting in between us), but the competition is a lot of fun when you are skiing with the people you are competing directly against. I think it’s safe to say that the four of us all have very different backgrounds – one was a very talented mountain biker whose team ski races in winter for cross-training, another was a woman in a Madshus suit who apparently works on a beef farm, I’m a full-time student – but we were fighting hard out there.

In the end I wasn’t able to hit the podium for a variety of reasons. I finished fourth, 2.8 seconds out of third after 22.5 k. Argh! This was a little frustrating. Fuel for the fire next week I guess. But I won some prize money anyway, for just the fifth time ever in my career. Three of those times have been in Europe after I stopped training full-time – in France, Sweden, and Switzerland. I have to say racing is a lot more lucrative in Europe even if you’re a fairly mediocre runner or skier. It wasn’t a lot, but it was nice to be able to cover my race entry and train ticket.

Besides the cash prize, I also was given a Birnenweggen, a sweet bread from Kanton Schwyz where Rothenthurm. It came in a box and I wasn’t sure what it was until I opened it – was it food? electronics? something else? – but it turned out to be bread stuffed with pureed, spiced pear paste. Yum!

Not every baked good in Switzerland is so wonderful to win. Anyone who has done the Engadin Skimarathon has probably seen, won, or tasted a Nusstorte. After last year’s race, Holly Brooks had won one and left it at my house because she had way too much stuff to transport back to Alaska. I brought it to a dinner party at my friend Greg’s house. It was like I had arrived carrying an ugly, slimy, wart-covered frog. Actually, we were all biologists, so that would have been better. The nusstorte did not go fast.

(Holly, don’t take this personally, I was genuinely excited about it until I tried it… good thing you didn’t let it take up luggage space only to realize you had brought the worst possible souvenir from Switzerland!)

More recently, Greg and I were trying to describe Nusstorte to two American friends. It’s like a pie with two really thick crusts, stuffed with this sort of dry nut mixture. It’s so dry. “So it’s like pecan pie without the good part?” They asked. Yes! Yes! Exactly.

I’ve actually had good nusstorte, made by my friend Flurina. Maybe she has a secret. I could imagine it being better with ice cream on top. But it’s really not my favorite.

In the middle of the spectrum lie the traditional cookies from Einseideln, given in prizes at the Einsiedler Skimarathon (also close to Zurich and actually even lower elevation, but with more interesting trails than Rothenthurm and lacking that pesky water/ice problem). Einsiedler Schafböcke, as they are called, are white sort of fluffy cookies. They are delicately flavored with honey and a little bit of cinnamon and cloves. They probably won’t knock your socks off, but that’s because these days we don’t seem to be impressed by anything without pounds of sugar and huge, bold flavors. They are good.

Moral of the story: if you have a sweet tooth, enter the Rothenthurm race rather than the Engadin. First of all, you’re unlikely to bag a top-six finish in the Engadin Skimarathon, hate to break it to you (well, I’m certainly not… I guess I don’t know who is reading this). But if you can get there in a smaller Swiss Loppet, the birnenweggen is tasty and a very worthy reward for your hours of hard training.

Should you wish to try any of these Swiss specialties, you can order most online, with shipping to some places outside the country:

Birnenweggen (the Lucerne version, but I couldn’t find the Rothenthurmer Birnenweggen online)

Einsiedler Schafböcke

Bündner Nusstorte from Davos

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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.

 

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.

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?