Alton Brown’s Soft Pretzels

IMG_8777.JPGThis is another selection in the summer baking tour of 2017. My darling younger son Cormac had a list of goodies he wanted us to bake this summer so that he’d be better able to do them on his own while back at school; soft pretzels is one that we hadn’t attempted yet.

I’ve long considered homemade soft pretzels to be my achilles heel. I’ve attempted to make them many times, including three loathsome tries in the winter of 2009 when I was testing recipes for a well-regarded chef’s bread cookbook (see them here, here, and here). Looking at the pictures now, yikes. I have to admit, I was pretty scarred after that experience.

Fortunately, my equally darling elder son, Liam, has grown into a very accomplished cook. He discovered this Alton Brown recipe and has had great success with it so I thought Cormac and I would give it a go. They turned out puffier than in Alton’s picture, but were still quite gorgeous and deliciously chewy. Definitely a keeper, this recipe.

A note: we used coarse sea salt, as I thought our kosher salt was a bit too fine. And a little tip: in order to prevent the pretzels from sticking to the oiled parchment in the oven, it’s important to blot any excess liquid from the slotted spatula after lifting the pretzel from the baking soda/water bath (before transferring it to the parchment-lined sheet pan). Trust me, you do not want to have to peel the parchment off the pretzel bottoms. I’ve done it, and it’s no fun!

Liam made whole grain mustard to accompany the pretzels, including a honeyed variation — perfection!

Four-Strand Braided Challah

IMG_8775.jpgThis was a really fun bake. I was a little apprehensive about making a challah, given the promised stickiness of the dough and because I was planning on hand kneading it, to demo for my son who doesn’t have a stand mixer at his apartment. It turns out the mixing was quite manageable and straightforward.

I used King Arthur Flour’s Four-Strand Braided Challah recipe (see it here). I had initially considered the Challah recipe from Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day which I had made with success in the past. I balked, though, when I realized that the recipe called for 8 – 10 egg yolks. The comparative frugality of the King Arthur Flour recipe was appealing, especially for my budget-observing college student.

Cormac coached me through the four braid, as he had mastered it when he made his challah when he was at school. King Arthur Flour has a great blog post which describes the braiding technique. My strands weren’t very even, resulting in an oddly shaped braided loaf, but all in all, I was delighted with the results. The braid is delicious — moist and very faintly sweet. I see many more challah breads in our future!

Strawberry Cream Cake

IMG_8710It will probably come as no surprise that I am a devoted viewer of The Great British Bake-Off (or The Great British Baking Show, as it is inexplicably renamed in the United States). From time to time, a contestant will break down weeping over a catastrophic bake and  one of the hosts will need to come give him or her a pep talk. If I were on GBBO, this bake would be the one that broke me. I should be grateful to add that it is not too often that I am driven to such despair.

I made this one by request for my son Liam’s 23rd birthday. We typically do a lot of chocolate cakes for our summer of birthdays so it was very refreshing to be asked to do something fruity.

The recipe is from The America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book (the recipe is here.). In short, it’s a genoise sponge cake baked in one pan, then divided into 3 even layers, and filled with strawberry halves, strawberry puree and a cream cheese flavored whipped cream. With the exception of the dreaded genoise, it’s a pretty straightforward cake.

I am not certain whether I just psyched myself out or what, but the genoise totally kicked my ass. I ended up baking 2; the first, a failure, was a flat rubbery disc. The second was considerably better but I wasn’t optimistic when I put it in the oven as I was still finding unmixed pockets of flour in the batter, despite my best efforts. The finished genoise had decent height but dipped a bit in the center, resulting in an uneven layer — about 3/4″ tall on the outside edges but less (to nonexistent) in the center. That top third ended up becoming the middle layer when I assembled the cake, and the center wound up with double thick strawberry puree and whipped cream mixture where the center layer was absent, but it didn’t seem too cloying to eat.

IMG_8712The cake ended up looking quite pretty and was quite tasty but I wouldn’t say it was one of my favorite cakes. Fortunately, no one was counting on me to pitch in eating it; my guys devoured it in 3 nights — kind of a record for speed. In hindsight, I think the results would have been just as pleasing with any white or yellow cake. And there would’ve been less wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth for the baker!