Sunday, February 28, 2010

Danish Braid (AKA the "Coffee Cake" Finale)

I wrote about Danish Dough and Danish Slices in the Left Hand Valley Courier, republished here and here. But my favorite shape for Danish Pastries is the Danish Braid. I think it looks prettier than the slices, and although it's a little more complicated than the Danish Slices, it's not nearly as complicated as the finished product looks.

You can dress up the braid with sugar bits, drizzled icing or sliced almonds, or just eggwash it for a crispy shiny finish, and leave off the garnishes. The braid makes it look pretty, even without the extras.

The book where I found the recipe, Baking with Julia, includes quite a few recipes for fillings. But really, you can use just about anything you'd use in a pie or a crostata. But my favorite, I think, is cherry filling, with or without a base of pastry cream.

For the cherry filling, I use sour pie cherries that I bought at the local farmer's market. A pound of them is enough for one pastry. The cherries need some sweetness as well as a thickener. The easiest thing to do is add a cherry jelly, which adds both. I've used a cherry-almond jelly, also purchased at the farmer's market, with great success.

If you don't want to use jelly (or don't have any on hand) sugar and cornstarch works as well, or sugar and any other thickener that you'd use in a pie filling. About a half-cup of sugar seems to be enough for the cherries I have, but that's going to vary depending on how sweet or tart your cherries are, as well as how sweet or tart you like your pie filling. Personally, I like some tartness contrasting with the sweet glaze.

I think a little bit of almond extract is a nice compliment to the cherries, but it's fine without. Vanilla extract would be a nice touch, too.


Chili Cookoff Results

No sense beating around the bush. I didn't win. I'm fine with that. I made a chili that I like, which is a good thing, because there's a lot left. And I can see why the winners won. They were both very good, but also important, they were distictive. I thought that a red chili in Colorado would stand out against the many green chilis I expected to see, but the reds were the majority at this event.

I'm already beginning to plot next year's entry. Here, the contestants await their audience. The boots are for donations to the local arts association.

But the event was less about chili than it was about community. And the community showed up - everyone from seniors to youngsters. Not only was it good food and a charity event, but the price was right. The four chilis from the professional chefs were $1 per cup. The ten samples from the amateur cooks were an even better bargain. Those were free. It was just a taste of each, but you could go back for as many tastes of as many chilis as you wanted.

When we're talking about Niwot, Colorado, we're talking about small-town community. There are times when I'm in Niwot and I feel like I've wandered into some alternate western version of Mayberry. The chili cookoff was a fine example of that small-town atmosphere. And one of the judges was the sheriff. I kid you not.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

BOTD: Plain and Simple White Bread

Today's bread of the day was dead simple. Almost lazy. And instead of using my KitchenAid stand mixer, I went with the food processor, just for the fun of it.

When I first seriously started making bread, it was an every-Sunday thing, and I had the timing of the mixing, rising, punching, shaping and baking pretty well coordinated with the laundry's wash, dry, fold, put-away cycle.

Back then, I didn't have the stand mixer, so I hand-kneaded or I used the food processor to make the dough.

Now, it's pretty much all kneaded in the stand mixer, with a little hand kneading if it needs that final touch.

But two days ago, I was feeling a little retro, so I decided to use the food processor. Yes, two days. I made the dough two days ago, but didn't bake it until today. Bread dough is forgiving like that, if your schedule gets jostled. And the flavor actually improves as it rests.


What's Cooking: "Coffee Cake" Part Two

This was originally published in the March, 2010 edition of the Left Hand Valley Courier, It was the second installment of the recipe that was started in the February issue. That article was was posted here.

What's Cooking?

Last month, I left you hanging with the pastry part of Danish pastry completed. But to make a filled coffee cake, you need the filling, and maybe some folding instructions.

The crafty among you may have realized that anything that might go into a pie would also work in a Danish pastry.

If you’re making your own fillings, start by making those and have them chilled and ready to go before you start working with the dough. This recipe uses both pastry cream and a fruit filling, but you could use either one alone, or use your own favorite fruit filling, thick jam, or canned almond paste.


Friday, February 26, 2010

Chili Cookoff!

Silly me. I entered a chili cookoff, which takes place tomorrow. So I spent much of today preparing dried chilis, roasting fresh peppers, grinding meat ... stirring, simmering, stirring ... cooking three different kinds of beans, testing-tasting-adjusting ... stirring, simmering, stirring. Yeah, that sums up my day.

We had chili for dinner. I think it's pretty good. I don't know if it's a prizewinning chili, but we'll see.

And I made a LOT of chili. I'm supposed to bring two gallons of the stuff. I think I got carried away.

So now the vat of chili has been tranferred to containers, and it's all in the fridge. Tomorrow, I do a reheat, a last-minute adjustment of spice and heat, and then get it over to the contest site in the late afternoon.

Then just hang out and eat everyone else's chili.


Cracker-Bread Puffy Things (Part Three: All is Revealed)

So, imagine this...

Each guest sits down to dinner, and there's a strange bready thing in a bowl for each person.

The guests look a bit apprehensive. What is it?
Alien egg?
Bread and water for dinner?
An upcoming practical joke?
You invite them to tap it with a fork to crack it open.

Tap, tap...crack crack.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cracker-Bread Puffy Things (Part Two: Troubleshooting)

Every time I make cracker-bread puffs (or pitas), there are a few that don't puff completely. They get bumpy and lumpy and bubbly, but the bubbles are uneven and they never fill the whole bread, like the one at the right.

Since most of the time I'm trying to make pitas rather than puffs, the puffing doesn't matter since I'm going to flatten them anyway. I those cases, it's more of a curiosity why some puff and some don't.

So I decided to do some experimenting.


Cracker-Bread Puffy Things (Part One: The Baking)

When I've got company over for dinner, I love being able to have one dish that stops the conversation. I'm not always successful at creating that "speechless" dish, but every now and then I get my moment of awe.

This puff of crispiness created that moment for me as guests wondered what the heck it was and what they were supposed to do with it. And once they cracked them open, they were even more amazed. Because it's more than just a bread or a cracker. What you see is just the shell. Inside is something that will amaze your guests as they wonder how it's possible. Because it seems so impossible unless you tell them your secret. Like a magician pullling a rabbit from a hat, it's not magic, but just a little technique and a little bit of misdirection.

The only downside to this dish is that I don't have a name for it. I call them puffy bread things, but that's silly. They need a better name. Magic bread. Surprise Puffs. Tricky Eats.

Eh, I'll work on the name later. .


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Musings: The Bulk Section of the Grocery Store

When I needed some Grade B maple syrup, I remembered that I'd seen it in the bulk section of a local store. In the back of my mind was the mantra "bulk is better." I was feeling good about buying in bulk instead of buying something pre-packaged until I was actually dispensing the syrup into one of the provided plastic bottles.

Then the dispenser dribbled and spit and I got syrup on my hands. Wiping the goo off my hands, I asked myself, "How is this any better than buying a similarly-sized prepackaged container?"

I'd never taken the time to think about why so many people thought that the products in the bulk bins at the supermarket were better than their pre-packaged counterparts. And were they better, really? For whom?

There was a store in Chicago that sold almost everything from bulk bins and I loved the place. But what I loved most about it was that I could buy odd items that weren't sold in most grocery stores, like unusual flours and grains. But the bulk section of the grocery stores I shop at now aren't that comprehensive or exotic. I can find the same things on the store shelves. Sometimes I buy from the bulk section, sometimes I buy the same things prepacked. Often, there is no logical reason for my choice on any particular day.

But as I was trying to get the stickiness off the outside of the bottle, I was looking at the bulk bins and the bags, tags and scoops, I started thinking more about it. When is bulk better? Why? When does it make sense for me to choose one over the other?


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

What I'm Reading: Milk

Isn't Mr. Eggnog a happy fellow? This wasn't intentional. I dropped ice cubes randomly into the glass, and this smiley face was the result.

Sitting on my bookshelf I have a book called Fat, which is mostly cookbook with all sorts of interesting information about different types of fat.

If that seems like a narrow focus on an ingredient, then Milk, by Anne Mendelson, would seem impossibly narrow.

But maybe not.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Turkey Dumplings? Oh my!

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. I'm not exactly sure who "they" are, but in my kitchen, leftovers and poor timing are sometimes the step-parents of invention.

In this case, the leftovers included about 12 ounces of ground turkey, crushed crackers, turkey stock, and an assortment of miscellaneous vegetables.

Soup sounded good, so I skimmed the fat off the turkey stock, strained out the bones and bits, and put it in a pot with some carrots and onions.

The ground turkey. Hmmmm....meatballs might be nice, I thought. So I mixed up the turkey, the cracker crumbs, some random spices, and one egg. Since I had ground the turkey myself, and since I brined it before that, I knew I didn't need any more salt that what the crackers had provided. I didn't measure the cracker crumbs, but I'd guess it was no more than 1/3 cup.

When I was getting the egg out of the fridge, I noticed the container of leftover cooked potatoes. I grabbed those and added what was probably the equivalent of a medium-sized potato to the turkey, I mashed it roughly with a fork and mixed that into the turkey. Then I covered the bowl and stashed it back into the fridge while I fiddled with the soup.


Plantains and the Press

I only know one way to cook plantains. Or, more accurately, I usually only cook them one way. I don't cook them all that often, but when I do, I fall back to a recipe that I like. Why mess with such tasty success?

And it's dead simple.

Most of the plantains at the grocery store are woefully underripe, so I buy them well before I want to use them. Then they sit on the counter until they're mostly black. If bananas were that black, they'd be pudding inside, but not plantains.

The plantains here have just gone into the pan for the second fry. Don't they look like flowers, with their dark centers and frilly edges?

Twice-Fried Plantains
Because everything's better when it's cooked twice!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dinner Tonight: Smoked Turkey Breast

Last November, when turkeys were on sale in the days after Thanksgiving, I bought a bird and stashed it in the freezer. Last week, I decided it was time to thaw the bird and free some freezer space.

When it was thawed, I cut it into pieces: two wings, two legs, two thighs, and two breast halves. Neck, back, and giblets went into the crockpot to make stock while the cut sections went into a brine with some apple cider, salt, peppercorns and a few poultry-friendly spices for an overnight spa treatment.

Next day, the turkey pieces came out of the brine and I rinsed it, patted it dry, and grabbed a thigh and breast to grind up for another recipe. The rest went back to the fridge for a little drying session.

Smoking came the next day. I smoked the remaining breast half and wings with applewood and I smoked the two legs and the remaining thigh with oak. All of this was done in my handy little stovetop smoker. It looks sort of like a little Weber grill, but it's made by NordicWare.

Yeah, it's not the same as smoking outdoors in a real smoker, but it's still good. And I can use on days when it's too cold and miserable for me to want to poke my toes outdoors.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

BOTD: Malted Wheat Bread

Today's Bread of the Day included a new ingredient: Malted Wheat Flakes. They sounded interesting, when I found them on the King Arthur Flour website, so of course I had to order them. The instructions on the bag say that the flakes don't need to be soaked before adding to bread, but I decided to put them in right away; not exactly a soak, but as much chance to meet moisture as possible.

In this recipe, I used whey left over from yogurt making as the liquid ingredient, but water would be just fine. I also used demerara sugar, because that's what I normally use. White sugar would be fine, as well.

And for a change, I measured everything as it went into the mixer.

Most bread recipes call for covering the doughball with oil and plopping it into a clean bowl. However, I usually just use the stand mixer bowl. I drizzle a little oil over the dough, make sure it's not stuck to the bowl anywhere, and cover it. If you'd prefer to use a clean bowl, go for it.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Musings: Why I Find It Hard To Share Recipes

Or maybe the title should be:

Why Your Food Won't Taste Like Mine, Even If You Follow My Recipe Exactly

I just finished up the last recipe for the maple syrup contest I've been toying with. Deadline is today, and finalists will be notified next week, so keep your fingers crossed for me.

While working on contest recipes, I learned a lot about my cooking. What seems so natural to me in the kitchen doesn't translate really well to the written word.
Most of my cooking is done with a bit of this, a handful of that, and a little taste here and there to adjust things. Even my bread creationss are made by look and feel more than by weights and measures. Most days, I start with yeast and liquid and add the various dry ingredients until it looks the way I want it to.

Part of my goal in blogging about my cooking is to force myself to measure things as I throw them into the bowl or pot. If I want to pass along my recipes, I need to quantify better than by the handful or by the drizzle.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Dinner Tonight: Chicken-Turkey Rice Soup

No photo of this soup. Here's some other soup.
Some days, soup is just what you need. Today was one of those days. I wasn't sure where I was going to end up, but I started out with a hunk of frozen chicken stock.

I didn't have much of a plan, but that's how it is a lot of the time. I go rooting around to see what I have on hand, or I go to the grocery store to see what looks good, and then I start throwing it all around until it looks and tastes good.

Some days I start with a clear idea in mind, and I work my way towards that result. Other days, I start with a clear idea in mind, and I wander hopelessly offtrack and end up with something completely different.

When it's a soup day, I mostly don't have a plan. I start with something and I add flavors and textures until I'm happy with what I have.

So today, I started with chicken stock. Into the pot it went. When I make stock, I reduce it a lot to save on freezer space, so I added about twice as much water as I had stock, and set that to simmering so the stock-chunk could melt.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

BOTD: Maple White Wheat Oatmeal Bread

I’ve been on a bit of a maple binge lately. Today's Bread of the Day is no exception. It’s easy to explain, though. There’s a cooking contest coming up that involves maple, and I’m trying to come up with some crazy recipes that I can submit.

While this bread is really tasty, as I was typing up the recipe I realized it’s probably way too complicated for a contest where some random person will have to bake my recipe. When I got to the part where I was about to describe how to shape the bread, I realized that if the person isn’t a bread baker, a written description is going to be difficult to follow.

So I’ve abandoned it for the contest. But I’ll keep it around for personal use. And here it is for you, too.

Maple Oatmeal White Wheat Bread

The maple adds a nice sweetness to this hearty bread, and counteracts some of the bitterness that some people detect in whole wheat products. This bread takes quite a lot of kneading to get it to the shiny and elastic stage, but it does get there. It’s also a bit slow rising; don’t rush it. This loaf is worth waiting for.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gluten-Free White Bread

While I have no need to bake gluten-free bread, when I got a copy of Mary Capone's The Gluten-Free Italian Cookbook, I knew that I'd have to try the bread recipe. Bread is all about gluten, and the idea of making a bread without that stretchy component intrigued me.

I've written about Capone a few times for the Left Hand Valley Courier, but didn't spend a lot of time on the recipe itself. It's time to fix that.

The recipe requires a bit of a leap of faith that it's all working correctly, because the steps seem a little arbitrary and the process is nothing like making yeast bread. Afterward, it all makes sense, but it the middle of it, it seems like a science experiment gone wrong.

The bread in the book is called "Our Daily Bread" and the basic recipe is just that. It's a very plain white bread that wouldn't clash with anything and that would be the perfect background for a sandwich or morning toast.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dinner Tonight: Pizza

Nothing special, and no recipe. I just threw together a pizza from what was on hand.

The crust was a sourdough made with a good majority of white wheat flour, and the toppings were Italian sausage, mushrooms and roasted red pepper.

I was a little too much of a hurry getting the pizza done, and then it didn't want to slide off the peel and onto the stone. Taste-wise, it was pretty good.

Oh yeah, and since I grew up in Chicago, it's cut into squares instead of triangles. And I always (always, without fail) eat a corner piece first. Because if you cut a round pizza into squares, there are alway 4 triangular "corner" pieces.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mom's Tomato Soup

When I was a kid, this was simply referred to as "Good Soup" It was my ultimate favorite.

Rereading it now, I see that there's no indication of what happens to the meat from the pork neckbones. Basically, that ends up as a snack - or a lunch - for the cook. Cooked until falling-apart tender, it's great with barbecue sauce.

Where it says, "adjust seasonings to taste," we generally preferred a tart tomato soup, and mom would often add sour salt or a little more vinegar to the soup if the canned tomatoes weren't tart enough. On the rare occasions when it was too tart, she might add a touch of sugar. And of course, salt had to be adjusted.

I've made this using canned evaporated milk instead of cream for a version with less fat, and it's still good. You can also use store-bought noodles, but do try to find the kluski if you can. It's just not the same with regular noodles.

I've also made a vegetarian version, using water instead of pork stock, and it's still fine. Or chicken stock works, as well. Of all the soups my mother made, this was the only one that used pork, and the only cut of meat she ever used was pork neckbones. You could substitute other cuts, if you prefer. After all, the meat doesn't go into the soup.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Nutty Banana Oatmeal Butterscotch Bars v 1.0

Have some rolled oats ...
This is a relatively healthy bar, with whole wheat, oats, nuts...the butterscotch chips can be left out, if you want to cut back on the sweetness. The recipe is a bit of a work in progress, so it's not quite perfect yet - at least not at high altitude.

1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1 cup quick-cooking oats
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temp.
1 1/4 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 ripe (or overripe) bananas, mashed (about 1/3 cup)
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 11-oz. bag butterscotch chips
1 cup nuts chopped (I like walnuts and sunflower seeds)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat pan with baking spray or use butter and flour.

Note: I used a 15” x 10” x 1” pan and it overflowed up here at high altitude, but it might be fine at sea level. It might be wise, though, to either use something deeper or larger, or put a larger pan underneath just in case. Or bake this as muffins instead of bars. Somewhere I've got notes on a re-tweaked version that didn't overflow, but I can't find them at the moment. I'll post 2.0 instructions when I find them.

Blend the first 5 ingredients in a small bowl.

In a large bowl, beat sugar until fluffy. Add sugars and beat until well-blended. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Beat in bananas and vanilla.

Stir in the flour mixture until it’s all blended. Don’t overmix it. Add butterscotch chips and nuts, and mix until they’re evenly distributed.

Spread the batter into the pan and even out the top. Bake at 350 about 45 minutes, until the top is browned and a toothpick poked in the center comes out clean.

Let cool on a rack, in the pan. Cut and serve.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

He Giggled Too Much...

 I shoved him into the oven.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

BOTD with Ultragrain

While the baking aisles at the local grocery stores tend to be clogged with cake mixes and canned frostings, the flour sections have improved since we moved here. Then, I was limted to a few brands and a few options unless I was buying boutique flour in tiny bags. Now, on occasion, I'll find something new. Recently, I picked up a bag of Eagle Mills All Purpose Flour with Ultragrain.

Of course, I had no idea what it was when I bought it. I know the names of a lot of different grains, but Ultragrain sounds to me like it might have superhero tendencies. Maybe it would make me able to leap tall buildings.

Or not.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

BOTD Product Review: Hi-maize Natural Fiber

Another day, another bread. Another Bread Of The Day.

I seldom bake a straight loaf of white bread. I'm always looking for new types of flour, new grains, and interesting add ins. Sometimes it's just a random mad addition when I look into the fridge and pull out some leftover item and toss it into the bread.

And sometimes there's an actual plan. Like when I find a new ingredient, and that's all I add to my basic recipe to see what the result will be.

King Arthur Flour is one of my favorite places to order baking supplies. The service is good, the selections are interesting, and customer service is great. And I'm always finding new things to try.

When I saw Hi-maize Natural Fiber on the King Arthur website, I had to try it. After all, fiber is a good thing, and although whole wheat bread can be tasty, sometimes you just want a nice loaf of white. And according to the King Arthur website, a loaf of bread baked with this stuff can have more fiber than a loaf of whole wheat.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Making Vinegar

One of my cooking goals is to make as many items from scratch, at least once. Not that I’m going to keep on making these things forever, but I want to know how the food I eat is made.

Some things, I continue making. Others, it’s a one-time event. And some I’ll buy sometimes and make other times. Vinegar falls in that last category. Yes, vinegar. It’s not hard, once you capture a mother.

A mother is what turns wine into vinegar. The mother is composed of cellulose and a bacteria. It’s the bacteria that turns the alcohol into acid, thus creating wine vinegar. As far as the cellulose, I haven’t a clue why it’s there or where it comes from. But that’s the information I found online.

The first step in making vinegar is finding an active mother. It took me over a year to find one, but I’ll admit that I wasn’t going to great lengths to find one. Bragg’s apple cider vinegar claims on the label that it contains the mother, but I used up two bottles of it without ever seeing the slightest hint of anything.

Then one day I was pouring out the last bit of a wine vinegar onto some lettuce, and a slimy blob landed on the lettuce. At first, I thought “yuck” but then I realized I had a mother.


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.
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