Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What's Cooking? It's Not Really Coffee Cake

This was originally published in the February, 2010, issue of the Left Hand Valley Courier.

Since my column in the Courier has a limited amount of space, I had to cut this recipe in half to make it fit. 

This first half covers the making of the Danish dough. The next half covered making fillings and then folding and baking. The third half (I was never good at math) is about making a Danish Braid.

The photos are just some of the coffeecakes I've made, including those filled with almond paste, lemon curd, sour pie cherries and apple. 

I've also done peach, chocolate, and blueberry. Some have also included a pastry cream with the fruit. The options are endless, limited only by your imagination and your taste.

Besides making coffeecakes, this dough is great for turnovers and even croissants. The sugar makes this dough a little bit sweet, but it's not so sweet that you couldn't use this for a savory recipe.

It's Not Really Coffee Cake

When I was a kid, my mother used to buy coffeecakes from a small bakery. Or at least, that’s what she called them. They were long and flat and came in a paper bag, and they crumbled and flaked a little when you cut into them.

Fast-forward to adulthood, and the coffeecake of my childhood is nothing but a distant memory. I’d about given up on finding they key to recreating those cakes when I happened upon a recipe in “Baking with Julia,” based on Julia Child’s PBS television series.

The recipe was for Danish dough. It changed my life.

Okay, maybe not that dramatic, but it made me very, very happy.

Danishes are often made from puff pastry, but this recipe is different, and much less work. And it seems to be exactly what I ate in my childhood. They key to the coffeecake mystery is that the coffeecakes of my youth were not a cake at all, but pastry. 

Danish Dough
Adapted from a recipe by Beatrice Ojakangas in “Baking with Julia,” written by Dorie Greenspan

1/4 cup warm water
2 1/2 teaspoons (one package) dry yeast
1/2 cup room temperature milk
1 large egg at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 sticks butter

Put the water and yeast into a large bowl and let it sit for a few minutes to soften. Add the milk, egg, sugar and salt. Whisk to combine and set aside.

Put the flour into the work bowl of your food processor. Cut the butter into chunks – about 8 chunks per stick, and drop them into the food processor. Pulse until the butter is cut into pieces about 1/2 in diameter. Don’t get carried away – you want fairly large pieces.

Empty the food processor into the bowl with the wet ingredients and fold gently with a rubber spatula, just until all the flour is moistened. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge. At this point, it can rest overnight or as long as four days.

When you’re ready to work the dough, lightly flour your work surface and dump the dough out. Dust it with a little flour to keep it from sticking, and pat the dough into a rough square shape.

With your rolling pin, roll the dough into a square about 16 inches on each side. You don’t have to be precise, but if you get close to this size, the dough will be as thin as it needs to be, and that’s the key.

If you need to add more flour to the work surface or rolling pin, do so sparingly. Work quickly, but not frantically. If the room is warm and the dough gets too sticky or the butter seems to be getting soft, quit rolling, wrap it in plastic, and put it in the fridge for a little rest.

Fold the dough into thirds, like a business letter. Roll the dough again, into a rectangle about 10 inches by 24 inches.

Fold in thirds again. Roll to about a 20-inch square. Fold again, like a business letter.

One more time, roll into a long rectangle, about 10 inches by 24 inches. Fold in thirds, wrap it in plastic, and stash it in the fridge.

At this point, the dough should rest for at least 30 minutes before you shape it and bake it, or up to four days. Frozen, it will keep up to a month. Each batch of dough will make two Danish Braids or eight individual pastries.

Next month, we’ll make some fillings, fold it up real pretty, and bake it.

Notes: I’ve sometimes added vanilla or almond extract to this dough, depending on what filling I have in mind.

The original recipe calls for unsalted butter, but I prefer it with one stick of salted and one of unsalted.

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