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!

Chicago Red Hot Poppy Seed Buns

IMG_8677There’s nothing like a great hot dog in the summer. I was thrilled to recently discover that Ball Park Franks makes uncured dogs (as do many other companies, but I love the flavor of Ball Park more than many of those others) since I don’t love the idea of eating lots of unnecessary chemicals (although apparently I’m totally OK with eating unknown parts of cow), so we’ve been having our share of hot dogs this year.

We first fell in love with Chicago Dogs 5 years ago during a family trip to the Windy City, when we enjoyed a hotel room takeout lunch that my guys picked up at Portillo’s. For the uninitiated, a Chicago-style hot dog is a Vienna Beef hot dog on a poppy seed bun, topped with yellow mustard, bright green relish, chopped onions, tomato wedges, a kosher dill pickle spear, sport peppers, and celery salt. Here in New England, short of ordering a kit online from Vienna Beef (or paying exorbitant prices at Amazon) it’s hard to get one’s hands on the required shade of relish or the sport peppers, but I can make poppy seed  buns. I found my recipe on the King Arthur Flour site.

My hot dog buns didn’t become the golden brown I was hoping for. I didn’t want them to dry out so I decided to choose taste over looks and pulled the pan out after baking them for an additional minute or so. They were beautifully tender inside, but just didn’t look as picture perfect as I would’ve preferred.

I substituted conventionally colored (let’s call it “blah green”) sweet relish for the Chicago lime green variety, and pickled pepperoncini for the sport peppers (I tried to select a jar with smaller pepperoncini to mimic the size of the sport peppers). They weren’t authentic Chicago dogs but they were close enough for us!

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There’s a hot dog somewhere under all that!

King Arthur Flour July Bakealong: Blueberry Hand Pies

IMG_8678My second King Arthur Flour bakealong! And performed in the appropriate month too. This month’s challenge is Blueberry Hand Pies (recipe here).

I made these on one of those hot and humid summer days during which I’m pretty sure you’re never supposed to make pastry. My cold butter went from rock hard to a melting mess pretty quickly; I’m sure my hot hands didn’t help either. My dough made many more trips and spent a lot more time in the fridge than the recipe suggested. I spent all afternoon just popping it in and out of the refrigerator before I even got around to rolling and cutting the little pie squares.

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The results were totally worth it though. I really loved the way these turned out. The pastry was super flaky and had a nice crispness to it. If you love pie crust, and I do, there’s lots of crust. The blueberry filling is just a little sweet and pairs very nicely with pastry. I’m eagerly anticipating having the leftovers with coffee tomorrow morning!

The Oreo Experiment

IMG_8653I’ve been meaning to attempt baking Oreos for years. Like since my Oreo-loving younger son was in middle school (he’s a junior in college now). I had three possible recipes to choose from, but just kept putting it off, seriously, like I said, for years. In fact, I can’t quite even believe I have actually gotten around to doing it.

The three possible recipes in my collection that I was choosing from were Faux-Reos from the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion, Homemade Oreos from Joanne Chang’s Flour and this one, America’s Test Kitchen Family Baking Book’s Chocolate Sandwich Cookies (Paige at Lorrabeth.com does an amazing job blogging her gluten free version, complete with original recipe here). The primary difference among the versions was the filling. King Arthur Flour’s filling contained shortening and Joanne Chang’s was more of a traditional American buttercream. America Test Kitchen’s was the simplest of the three and what I imagined might taste closest to actual Oreo filling; the ingredients were confectioner’s sugar, water, and vanilla extract.

IMG_8655The cookie dough and the filling are each rolled into a log and then chilled and sliced 1/8″ thick. Do you know how thin 1/8″ is? It’s quite thin, and I found it difficult to slice straight down so that each slice had the same thickness from top to bottom. I had even more trouble getting the cookies to be round, as you can see from my pictures.

IMG_8657The actual cookie base is America’s Test Kitchen’s Chocolate Butter Cookie recipe, and as you might imagine, are quite tender and fragile. Mine didn’t turn out particularly crisp, although that maybe due the humidity (and possibly underbaking) as much as anything. And while they are tasty (and super sweet), they really don’t taste at all like Oreos to me. As my husband put it, they are too chocolatey to be Oreos. They are terrific with a hot cup of tea but they’ll never replace my store-bought Oreos. Yes, I said it; I actually love the store-bought cookie better than homemade in this case. 🙊

King Arthur Flour June Bakealong: Classic Baguettes

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Yes, I’m a little behind. I fully intended to complete this bakealong during the designated month but I had a lot of “obstacles.” First, I decided that after years of successfully making baguettes without one, now was the time that I absolutely needed a couche to tackle the recipe. And even though I could have easily ordered one online, it somehow was completely logical to make the trip to the King Arthur Flour store in Norwich, Vermont, a hypothetical 3 hours away (really closer to 4 hours each way with real life Boston traffic), to purchase one instead. Which I did. (A big thank you to my darling sons for accompanying me!)

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And then almost as soon as we were back, we were away on vacation for a week. And suddenly it was no longer June. All very much #firstworldproblems.

Several years ago, when my bread baking prowess consisted entirely of firing up a bread machine, I first ventured into baguette baking using recipes from the King Arthur Flour site and cookbook. The resulting baguettes were okay — not stellar, but decent enough. Much to my surprise, I was quite pleased with this newer Classic Baguette recipe. Then again, my success this time may also have a little to do with the fact that I have about 9 years of bread baking and a baking and pastry degree under my belt since those novice baking days.

Remarkably, I gave myself to the spirit of the bakealong and actually followed the instructions to the letter instead of doing what I typically do, which is ignore any instruction which conflicts with my previous training. I mixed and kneaded the dough by hand instead of using my stand mixer, as I was demoing the recipe for Cormac who doesn’t have access to such equipment in his apartment. I found that the shaping instructions actually produced nicer shaped baguettes with less effort (i.e. they’re idiot-proof!) than my usual technique. And the couche worked fabulously.

The crust was a bit less crisp than my usual baguettes but Cormac said he actually preferred the softer crust of the King Arthur Flour version. All in all, a worthwhile experience. Now to complete July’s bakealong before August! 😉

A July Tradition: Grilled Asiago Rounds and Zucchini Caponata

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This pairing is a family favorite for us, especially on the Fourth of July, as my blog will attest (I’ve previously blogged about them here, and again here.) The caponata is a breeze but making the grilled breads in particular is a bit of a production. Over of the years, I’ve gotten better at the managing the process and my lovely husband has taken over most of the grilling part (although it’s still much easier with two of us working together on that part as well!).

The recipes are from the King Arthur Flour site — bread recipe is here, caponata recipe is here, and the detailed play-by-play is here. These days, I like to stretch the portions of dough as thin as they will go, about 7″ across, but KAF suggests 4″ rounds which result in plumper flatbreads. I just like how the resulting texture from my version varies from doughy to cracker-like in a single flatbread. I do have to shorten my grilling time accordingly and keep a close eye on each to ensure that they aren’t burning.

Here are all my flatbreads, stretched and queued up to go on the gas grill.

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Love, love, love this zucchini caponata! It can be a great way to enjoy local produce depending on where you live. Unfortunately, most of my ingredients were store-bought this time — it’s too early here in my part of New England for local tomatoes, onions and garlic, and while I could’ve used local zucchini, I had already used up all that was in my CSA share. The basil was fresh from the farm though!

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Birthday Cake Season

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Last month, I made a scrumptious birthday cake for myself. Unfortunately it was gone before I thought to take a photograph of it. But no worries! This month’s family birthday cake is exactly the same! Right down to the decorating. Actually, this month’s decorating may be a little less of a mess, so it’s a win-win to have forgotten to post the earlier cake.

This is my new favorite chocolate cake recipe. I think we’re exclusively a chocolate cake crowd here (although the icings vary) so I’ve tried a lot of different recipes over time. I’ve had this one for a long time (and made it a couple times many years ago), but somehow it didn’t stand out to us earlier. Maybe I’ve gotten better at baking, or maybe my substitution of hot coffee for the boiling water that’s called for makes that substantial a difference; I can’t say.

Hershey (who created the cake) has changed the recipe’s name over the years. My original print-out calls it “Hershey’s Deep Dark Chocolate Cake” but it’s currently called “Hershey’s Especially Dark Chocolate Cake” (follow link for the recipe) on the Hershey’s site. (There is a similar recipe that is otherwise identical, except that it uses natural cocoa powder rather than Special Dark.) My only change to the ingredients in the printed recipe is substituting an equal amount of freshly brewed hot (decaf) coffee for the boiling water. I also advise checking the cakes 3 – 5 minutes early and pulling them out of the oven when the cake tester still comes out with some crumbs; any longer and the cake layers won’t be as gloriously moist as they should be.

I iced the cake with a simple whipped cream… just 12 ounces of COLD heavy cream, 3 ounces of confectioner’s sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and 1 1/2 teaspoons of meringue powder (my trick to stabilize whipped cream that I’m using to top cakes or pies that I expect to have on hand for a few days). I put it all in a mixing bowl and whip with my stand mixer until I’ve reached the stiff peak stage. For more on whipping cream, King Arthur Flour wrote this great post with tips and pictures.

And finally, I’d like to wish my adorable husband PJ a happy, happy birthday!! 😘🎂🎉 Let’s eat cake!!

Friday Night Is Pizza Night

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Way back in the day, my boys took karate on Wednesday and Friday evenings, and every Friday their Shihan would ask if everyone was having pizza for dinner that night. In the beginning, we usually weren’t, but over time, more and more families began adopting the tradition, in part because it was easy and made sense, but also to avoid discussions as to why we weren’t when Shihan clearly felt we should.

It’s been many years since my guys have spent their Friday evenings in the dojo but I still think of Friday night as Pizza Night. The other night, I made my new favorite pizza dough recipe: King Arthur Flour’s The Easiest Pizza You’ll Ever Make (recipe at link). In about 3 hours, you end up with lovely to handle, chewy, elastic dough. The photo below is the dough after rising for 2 hours.

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The instructions say to roll out the dough, but I find it’s much easier to stretch the dough using the backs of my knuckles, letting its weight and gravity do the work. My longtime bread mentor Peter Reinhart demonstrates the technique here. This dough is elastic enough to stretch without tearing, a quality I’ve never really experienced with any other recipe. It almost makes me believe I can do the hand toss like a professional pizza maker!

I made three varieties of pizza. The first was a classic cheese pizza with mozzarella and a touch of parmesan – romano. I made another (pictured at the top of the post) which was inspired by an ingredient combo we’ve had at a number of local places. First the pizza was topped with tomato sauce,  mozzarella and parmesan – romano cheeses, and prosciutto. When the pizza was almost done I threw on a couple handfuls of baby arugula and put it back in the oven for a minute to wilt. I finished the pie off with a drizzle of Trader Joe’s Balsamic Glaze. I love the flavor of the balsamic glaze but I haven’t been able to come up with very many applications for it aside from pizzas and wraps.

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Finally I made one last experimental pie. Instead of tomato sauce, the base was a mixture of French dressing and Sriracha Sauce. I wanted the flavor of Sriracha without all the edge, and French dressing, in addition to being something I already had on hand in the fridge, seemed like it would be pretty compatible and not compete with the strong chile and garlic flavors. My sous chef, AKA my lovely husband, shredded some leftover Thai-style grilled chicken which had been marinated in cilantro pesto (called Gai Yang in Thai) to go on top of the bed of mozzarella (no parmesan – romano cheese on this one), along with chopped fresh cilantro and chopped peanuts. We were pretty pleased with the results but initially I thought it was lacking something I couldn’t quite identify. Maybe some sweetness? It was a fun experiment nevertheless and was awesome as cold leftovers.

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