Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ice Cream Cookie Sandwiches

If cookies aren't quite what you want for dessert, and if a bowl of ice cream is too much, why not make ice cream sandwiches?

Recently, I made Banana Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies, and I also had home made Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream in the freezer. They were a perfect match and together they made a nice small dessert. Just enough sweetness to be satisfying after a meal, and since they're into individual servings, they've got instant portion control.

And since they're a little fancier than a plate of cookies or a scoop of ice cream, they'd make a nice dessert for guests as well. Maybe roll the edges of the ice cream in some chopped nuts or colored sprinkles, if you want a little extra garnish.

You can make them right before serving, or make them ahead and freeze them. The cookies are pretty solid right out of the freezer, but they soften up pretty quickly. Just take them out of the freezer a minute or two before serving.

It's a darned simple idea, but not one that I think of that often, even when I have both items on hand. And if you made extra cookies and don't want them sitting around, why not make ice cream cookie sandwiches, wrap 'em, freeze 'em, and when you have guests you can bring out a quick little home made snack with no effort at all.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Adventures with a Bread Machine, Part I

I've been baking bread for more years than I want to admit. I've kneaded with a food processor, with my hands, and with a stand mixer. But the one thing I've never used is a bread machine.

I figured it was time to right that wrong. If I'm going to be writing all these bread recipes, I think I should have at least some knowledge of how a bread machine works, so I borrowed a friend's machine and today I decided to give it a try.

Unfortunately, she didn't have the manual, so I looked up directions online and found some recipes that were designed for the machine.

This machine is pretty simple, with settings for light, medium, and dark crust, and a manual mode that kneads the dough but doesn't bake the bread. Newer and fancier machines have settings for different types of breads, but I figured that a basic machine would be a good place to start.

The basic recipe was about as easy as it could get. Dump in the yeast around the outer edge of the bowl, dump in all the dry ingredients and the butter on top, then add the water on top and press the button.

The ingredients were:
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 package) active dry yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups bread flour
1 tablespoon dry milk
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup minus 1 tablespoon warm water

Hmmmmmm.... that seemed a little wet to me. I usually use 2 1/2 cups of flour to a cup of water, and that's still a fairly wet dough. But I figured that I'd trust the recipe, and I measured it all out, weighed 9 ounces of bread flour, dumped it all in as instructed, and pushed the button.

The machine is supposed to beep at several intervals, but I didn't hear it. Maybe it's a quiet beep. But eventually I realized that the "run" light had turned off and the machine was cooling off. I opened the lid, and this is what I saw:

Here it is out of the machine and waiting to cool:

Oh, my. That's not a pretty loaf of bread, by any standards.

The manual gives some helpful tips on what might have gone wrong, like your yeast was dead or you measured wrong. Um, no, I'm sure the yeast was fine. I use it almost every day. As far as measuring, it's possible that they assume a heavier cup weight for the flour, but since that's not indicated anywhere that I could find, it's hard to say what they expected.

After that sad loaf of bread emerged, I stared at the bread machine for a good long time and decided that maybe it wasn't the best example of its family. But ... sigh ... I'd asked a number of people if they had a bread machine I could borrow, and the most common response was some version of "I had one but I got rid of it."

I knew I wasn't interested in buying a brand new bread machine, since it's pretty unlikely I'll love it enough to want to keep it. So I went hunting the thrift stores in town, and lookie what I found:

This little gem was a whopping $12. It came with the manual. And recipes.

The interesting thing right off the bat is that this machine's directions are almost completely opposite of what the other machine required. With this one, water goes on the bottom, yeast goes on top, and it uses bread machine yeast. The other model specifically said not to use bread machine yeast, and to put the yeast on the bottom towards the edge, and to have the water on top.

I washed all the parts today, and I'll take it for a spin in a day or so. We'll see how that goes.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Banana Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies

This is a slightly healthier version of a previous pumpkin/banana cookie recipe. Oatmeal adds good fiber, and while the nuts add some fat, they also add protein to these cookies.

When you're making cookies, a small disher (like a mini ice cream scoop) is perfect for portioning and shaping cookies with a lot less fuss. A larger disher is great for portioning batter for muffins and cupcakes.

Parchment paper is a baker’s best friend. Cookies won’t stick, you won’t ever need to grease your cookie sheets, and cleanup is a lot easier.

Freshly ground nutmeg is much stronger than pre-ground nutmeg that you buy at the grocery store, and the whole nutmegs stay fresh practically forever. You can buy a nutmeg grater or just use a fine Microplane grater to grate the nutmeg. If you use pre-ground nutmeg, you can use up to 1/4 teaspoon. If you're using fresh ground, then just a few swipes on the Microplane grater is plenty.

Banana Pumpkin Oatmeal Cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick)  butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 egg
1 overripe mashed banana
canned pumpkin added to banana to make 1 cup
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup quick-cooking oats
1 cups chopped walnuts

Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in egg, banana, pumpkin, and vanilla.

In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, and oats. Stir to combine. Add dry ingredients to the wet, and mix well. Add the walnuts and stir to distribute.

While you can bake these cookies the same day, it’s better after being refrigerated overnight, which hydrates the oats.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Use a small disher or two teaspoons to drop the dough onto cookie greased or parchment-lines cookie sheets.

Leave plenty of room between them for them to spread.

Bake at 325 degrees for 20-25 minutes until the cookies are lightly browned. Move cookies to a rack to cool.

This recipe also appeared in the Cayenne Kitchen email newsletter.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cheesy Spaghetti Squash

Spaghetti squash and I have a long and sordid history. I first discovered it when I first left the parental nest and struck out on my own. Spaghetti squash was being touted as a great alternative to spaghetti, and I fell for that line. So I tried to serve it the same way I served spaghetti - with spaghetti sauce.

It wasn't horrible, but it wasn't all that good, either. It wasn't real spaghetti, and it wasn't a good use of the vegetable. So, for a long time, I ignored it.

When I rediscovered spaghetti squash, I looked at it a whole different way. I stopped thinking of it as a pasta alternative and started treating it like a vegetable. That doesn't mean I don't use sauces when they're appropriate. But they're sauces that complement the squash.

One of my favorite ways to eat it is with simple browned butter and sage. But this time I tried something completely different. I had about a cup of cheese sauce left over from some steak sandwiches I had made. The sauce was pretty simple. I started with a roux, added milk, then added colby cheddar cheese.

For the squash, I cut it in half, put it cut-side down on a baking sheet and cooked it until it was done, then scooped it out. I had the cheese sauce reheated in a pan, added the squash, and stirred to coat it with the sauce. It needed a bit more salt, then I added some white pepper, and that was it.

Cheese isn't the first thing you might think of with squash, but it worked really well with the spaghetti squash. For sure I'd make this again.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bread Math: How to Calculate (and understand) Baker's Percentages

The first time I saw baker's percentages in a book, I thought the writer had gone mad. C'mon now, how can anything possibly add up to more than 100 percent? It just doesn't make sense. I thought there must have been some strange mistake in the writing and proofreading, and I moved on, blithely unaware that I had just seen the seekrit spy code for breadmakers.

Okay, maybe it's not that secret, but it's something that tends to boggle the ordinary person who was awake enough in math class to realize that if the pie chart is full, that's 100 percent, and if you've got more, then you need another pie pan.

If you abandon that pie chart and look at it through the bread baker's eyes, it makes a little more sense. Outside the bread-making world, percentages indicate what part of the whole a particular component makes up, while a bakers' percentage is about how various other ingredients relate to the weight of the flour in a recipe.

In baking, as with much of cooking, the actual amounts of an ingredient don't matter much — it's the ratio of ingredients that matters. Think of bakers' percentages this way: the flour is equal to 100 percent. Every other ingredient is then expressed in terms of its ratio to the amount of flour. If, for example, you had a dough with 16 ounces of flour and 8 ounces of water and 0.32 ounces of salt, you'd say that the dough contains 50 percent water because the water weighs 50 percent of what the flour weighs. In baker's talk, that's called 50 percent hydration.

The beauty of expressing recipes in terms of percentages is that the units of measure can be anything: grams, ounces, picograms, whatever. It doesn't matter if you've got 15 ounces of flour or five pounds. And it doesn't matter what kind or how many varieties of flour. Add up the weight of the flour, divide by 100, and that's the unit you use to measure the rest of your ingredients.* It doesn't matter how much a particular ingredient weighs, only how much it weighs in relation to everything else.

If this all sounds confusing, hang on a minute. It gets easier.

Scaling Recipes Using Baker's Percentages

Let's try this with a real recipe.

My standard, everyday white bread recipe breaks down to the following percentages:

Bread flour: 100%
Water: 67%
Sugar: 4%
Yeast: 2%
Salt: 2%
Olive oil: 4%

So let's say I start with 12 ounces of flour on my scale. To calculate the rest of my ingredients, I first divide the amount of flour I have by 100, giving me 0.12 ounces. Now all I have to do to figure out the rest of my ingredients is to multiply them by their various percentages. So, for example, the water recipe is 67% water. Multiply 67 by 0.12, and I get 8 ounces (rounded from 8.04 ounces).

Do the same math across the board (rounding to the nearest 0.05 ounce), and you get the following weights:

Bread flour: 12 ounces
Water: 8 ounces
Sugar: 0.5 ounces
Yeast: 0.25 ounces
Salt: 0.25 ounces
Olive oil: 0.5 ounces

Some more astute readers might note that if you look at the bakers' percentages, it all adds up to 179%. Weird, right? That's just the nature of the beast.

Arriving at a Specific Dough Weight

What if you want to go the other way? Say you know that you want a pound of finished dough. How would bakers' percentages help you figure out how much of each ingredients to use? First, you'd start by adding up all of your percentages. For the white bread, that's 179. Next, divide the weight of the final dough you are trying to achieve by that number to give you the weight of a single unit.

So four a 16-ounce (1 pound) ball of dough, each unit of weight should be equal to 16 ounces/179, or 0.089 ounces.

Now all you have to do is multiply that unit by each of your percentages. So flour, for example, is 100 percent of the recipe. 100 x 0.089 = 8.9 ounces total. Using the same math for every ingredient, you get the following measurements for a one pound ball of dough:

Bread flour: 8.9 ounces
Water: 6 ounces
Sugar: 0.35 ounces
Yeast: 0.175 ounces
Salt: 0.175 ounces
Olive oil: 0.35 ounces

Got it?

Or you can go the other way. You can decide how much dough you want to end up with, and work your math magic from there.

Lacking math skills and a scale, you could follow a baker's percentage recipe with nothing more that a balance scale and some ingenuity. Because it doesn't matter how much a particular ingredient actually weighs, it only matters how much it weighs in relation to everything else.

Using a handy pebble to represent your single unit of measure, or even better, a bunch of those pebbles that each weigh the same amount, you could use that balance scale to weigh 100 units of flour, 67 units of water, 2 units each of salt and yeast, and 4 units of sugar and olive oil.

It wouldn't matter if those pebbles weighed an ounce or a gram or a Sakmar, and it wouldn't matter if you used a coconut instead of a pebble. Well, it would matter in the final volume of dough, but the overall formula would work to make a single loaf or enough to feed the entire village.

Here's a chart showing conversions that would yield 2 pounds of finished dough, to use that 25-pound bag of flour you just bought, or to use metric weights:

Although the initial math is, well...math, once you've got the formula it makes it easier to scale recipes when you need to, as long as you've got a good scale to do the measuring. Or a balance scale and a bucket of coconuts.

This formula is also handy for determining whether a bread recipe makes sense. If you know what the typical amounts of critical ingredients are, you can tell at a glance whether a recipe has the right amount of salt or yeast, even before you even open the container of flour.

You may not ever need to use baker's percentages to make a loaf of bread, but it's good to have that secret decoder ring, just in case.

*There are actually two ways of measuring baker's percentages if you're using a poolish or some other preferment. In some systems, the preferment is considered to be a separate ingredient, and in others the flour weight in the preferment is part of the 100 percent. If you're reading a recipe that uses baker's percentages and a preferment, make sure you know which system is in use. For the sake of this explanation, we're assuming that there is no poolish to worry about.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Caterpillar Bread

If you're going to put a creepy, crawly critter on the dining room table for Halloween, why not make it delicious?

Making bread in the form of a caterpillar like this one is not only cute and clever, it's also practical. The body segments are perfect rolls, and the legs are bread sticks.

There's no need for cutting - segments separate neatly with just a little tug. This would be great for a party or just for a fun dinner with the family.

If you're a bread baker, feel free to use this design with your own favorite bread recipe.

If you're not a bread baker and you like the idea, you can use frozen bread dough, a bread mix, or any other easy and convenient bread dough.

If you're serving a lot of people and you're going to be making multiple caterpillars, consider making different types of bread, and alternating them for an interesting color contrast in the body.

I like to use a fairly firm dough for bread sculptures; they behave better than wetter doughs that are more likely to spread or rise unpredictably.

If you don't have your own favorite dough but you want to make something completely from scratch, give this recipe a try. It's simple and it works well for sculpted loaves. And it tastes good, too.

Caterpillar Bread

2 1/4 teaspoons (1 package) instant yeast
1 1/4 cups lukewarm water
1 tablespoon sugar
3 cups (13 1/4 ounces) bread flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

In the bowl of your stand mixer combine the yeast, water, and sugar. Set aside until it bubbles, about 10 minutes.

Add the bread flour and knead with the dough hook of the mixer until the dough is smooth and elastic. Add the salt and oil and continue kneading until the dough is smooth, shiny and elastic and the oil and salt are completely incorporated.

Cover the bowl with plastic and let it rise until the dough has doubled in size, about an hour.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. You could also sprinkle a baking sheet with cornmeal, but it's easier to remove for cooling if you use parchment.

Flour your work surface lightly and turn the dough out. Knead briefly, then form the dough into a ball. Cut the dough into quarters, then cut each of those quarters into quarters again, so now you have 16 pieces. Form 12 of those pieces into balls, as you would for rolls.

Cut the remaining 4 pieces into thirds, so you now have 12 small pieces. Roll each of those pieces into a long, thin rope, a little thinner than a pencil. Arrange the ball and ropes on your baking sheet so that the balls barely touch each other and there is a rope underneath each "joint" between the balls. You'll use up 11 of the ropes. You'll need to arrange the balls in a twisty shape so that it will all fit on the pan, and you'll need to adjust the legs so they don't touch during baking.

Take the last rope and cut in thirds. Use two pieces for antennas on the head of the caterpillar, and make a small ball from the third piece flatten it a bit to a disc-shape and place it just under the head to make the pincer "mouth" for the caterpillar.

Cover the pan with plastic wrap and set aside to rise until it has doubled in size, about 30 minutes.

With a small pair or scissors, snip two "eyelids" on the face of the caterpillar, snip completely through the disc "mouth." 

Snip a decorative pattern on the body, if desired.

Bake at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes, until it is golden brown.

Remove the caterpillar to a rack to cool. When it's warm, it tends to want to separate, but after it has cooled it will hold together well.

This was published on Serious Eats and has been submitted to Tastespotting.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Sandwich Rolls

Apparently, I'm on a sandwich kick. First, it was the Cuban sandwiches, and now it's steak sandwiches.

I grilled a flank steak yesterday, and decided to make sandwiches today from the leftovers. Thin-sliced flank steak, briefly reheated with a shot of Worcestershire sauce and some sliced piquillo peppers went onto the home-made buns, and I topped that with a cheese sauce.

As for the buns, I'm all for a crusty loaf of bread, but sometimes a soft roll makes more sense for a sandwich.

These buns were sturdy enough for my steak sandwiches and would be just as good for a sub sandwich (or depending one where you live, a grinder or a hoagie.)

Sandwich Rolls

1 1/2 cups water
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup instant mashed potatoes
1/2 cup semolina flour
2 cups (9 ounces) bread flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

Mix the water, yeast and sugar in the bowl of your stand mixer. Add the instant mashed potatoes and the semolina flour, and stir to combine.

Set aside for 10 minutes. It should get fluffy.

Add the bread flour and knead with the dough hook until the dough becomes smooth and elastic. Add the salt and olive oil and continue kneading until it is completely incorporated and the dough is smooth, shiny and elastic.

Form the dough into a ball, drizzle it with a bit of olive oil, and return it to the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside until the dough has doubled, about an hour.

Sprinkle cornmeal on a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Flour your work surface lightly and turn the dough out. Divide the dough into 4 pieces, and form each one into a log about 2-3 inches in diameter and place them seam-side down, on the prepared baking sheet.

Cover the pan with plastic wrap and set aside to rise until doubled, about 30 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 35 minutes.

This has been submitted to Yeastspotting.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream

When I read a post on Serious Eats about a seasonal flavor of Jello Instant Pudding, I knew I had to use it to make my quick and easy ice cream. Although I'm a big fan of making things completely from scratch, I've been known to cheat once in a while. Using pudding mix to make an ice cream base is one of those cheats. It easy and foolproof.

And Pumpkin Pie flavor sounded like a great idea for ice cream. The review on Serious Eats said that the flavor was better as a mousse than a pudding, so I figured that it would be even better in ice cream, where the flavors would be even more subtle.

Don't get me wrong - I like pumpkin pie. But I don't like a lot of it. A couple bites is fine, but I prefer it when the flavor is muted a bit. Pumpkin cheesecake, for example. Or pumpkin mousse. This ice cream is like that.

Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream

1 package Pumpkin Pie flavored Jello Instant Pudding
3/4 cup white sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 quart half and half
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a bowl, combine the pudding, sugar and salt. (Stirring it well while it's dry helps it keep from clumping.) Add the cream and vanilla, and stir until the sugar is dissolved and everything is well combined. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate the mixture for at least an hour, or overnight.

Stir or whisk the mixture to make it pourable and churn it in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

How to use a scale for baking and cooking

If you're serious about baking bread, a scale is a worthwhile investment. The problem with measuring flour by volume is that it's amazingly inaccurate. A cup of flour can weigh anywhere from 4-6 ounces depending on how you fluff it or pack it, and even the experts disagree on how much a cup of flour is supposed to weigh.

If the recipe you're using gives a weight for the flour and you weigh your flour, there's no way you can go wrong - as long as you weigh correctly. If the recipe gives weights for the rest of the ingredients, you'll end up with fewer dishes to wash, and that's always a good thing.

To use a scale correctly, you need to understand the tare function. My first experience of how to mess up with an electronic scale was years ago when my job was to buy material from manufacturers by weight. One of my suppliers told me that we didn't pay him enough - his weights were different than ours. I asked his material handler to show me how he weighed the material. He got on the fork lift, picked up the box of material, drove onto the scale and wrote down the weight on a ledger. I said, fine, I'll pay your weight, but you've got to give me the forklift, the box, and the employee. The moral of the story: if you use the scale wrong, you can be very very wrong.

In short, the tare weight is the weight of everything you don't want to weigh. In cooking, that's usually the weight of the bowl, but it can also be the weight of all the ingredients you've added before. All without doing any pesky math.

There are two ways to use that tare function to your advantage. For the first, find a bowl that is large enough to hold your ingredients individually, and put that on the scale.

Press the tare button (on my scale the button is labeled "zero"), and the weight will reset to zero.

Then add your ingredients to the bowl until you reach the correct weight. If you go over the correct weight, just remove some until you get back down to the proper weight. Here, we've got a half-cup of flour that weighs 2 1/4 ounces. I got that weight my my usual measuring method where I stir the flour a bit to fluff it, then spooning it into the measuring cup and leveling it off. With this method, a cup of flour would weigh 4 1/2 ounces.

Dump those ingredients into your work bowl, and continue with the rest of the ingredients. It's a good practice to press the tare button each time you put the empty bowl on the scale, particularly if any of your ingredients might be clinging to the bowl.

If you had any doubts about how much flour weights can vary, take a look at the weight below. That's the same flour, using the same half-cup, and it weighs 2 7/8 ounces. I really had to work at compressing the flour into the cup, and as you can see, it held its shape after I dumped it into the bowl. Using this method, a cup of flour would weigh 5 3/4 ounces.

The second method of weighing ingredients with a scale is use your work bowl for all the weighing instead of using a separate bowl and ten transferring ingredients. Just put your work bowl on the scale, press the tare button to zero the scale and add your first ingredient until you reach the proper weight. Then press the tare button again to zero the scale and add the second ingredient.

This method is a little trickier in that it's slightly harder to remove ingredients when you've piled them on top of one another. So the key is to get close to the correct weight, add it slowly, and wait for the scale to settle and display the correct weight before you add more.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Vegetable Tart

Once again, I let myself get inspired by one of the recipes on the menu for the contest going on at Kitchen Play.

The deal is that Kitchen Play posts a menu each month, and each of the six menu items has already been prepared by bloggers who post the recipes and prep instructions on their sites. Everyone else is invited to make one or more of the recipes, blog about it, and post links hither and yon.

You're supposed to be inspired by the recipes rather than trying to create them as close to the original as possible, which is pretty cool. This time, I went pretty far from the original, a stacked grilled salad. Mine is a side dish instead of a salad. It's a vegetable tart.

Actually, it would make a nice lunch item, too.

As far as the contest, the prizes are from Sur la Table and they include V-Slicers and a Le Creuset French Oven. Not exactly a complete kitchen makeover, but those are nice prizes. Definitely worth giving it a shot, and to be honest, I appreciated the inspiration to do something I hadn't planned on.

Another nice thing about this contest is that I don't have to nag people to vote for me. Once this post is up and I put a link on the other site, it's done until they decide. Which is kinda cool.

As far as my modifications here, I went a little farther than I originally planned. I was going to include eggplants as one of the major players in the tart, but when I cut into the ones I had in my fridge, they looked a little to sad, so I tossed 'em and added more zucchini. So if you make this, keep that in mind, it would be nice with eggplant.

Vegetable Tart

1 pie crust, home made or otherwise
4 small zucchini cut in 1/4-inch rounds (or equivalent larger zucchini)
1 onion, cut in half and slices into 1/4-inch half-moons
Fire roasted red peppers (I used pequillos)
2 fresh tomatoes, peeled seeded, and chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
Splash of balsamic vinegar (I used a vanilla-fig balsamic)
Cheese, your choice, as much or little as you like (I used Swiss, mozzarella, and Parmesan, because that's what I had on hand- use what you like.)
Olive oil, for cooking

Put a little olive oil into a nonstick pan, heat to medium, and add the zucchini. Add a little salt and pepper and cook until browned nicely on both sides. Remove to a dish to cool.

Add the onions to the pan add salt and pepper as desired, and cook until the onions are softened. Remove to a dish to cool.

Place the pie crust in a 9-inch tart pan, press onto the bottom and up the sides, and trim off the excess.

Put a thin layer of cheese on the bottom (I used Swiss here) then top with the zucchini. Put a layer of roasted peppers on top, then the onions. Add a splash of balsamic vinegar. Add another layer of cheese, if desired. I added just a light sprinkle of the parmesan. Add the chopped tomatoes, and top with cheese. (This is where I put the mozzarella).

Put the tart pan on a baking sheet (depending on how wet your vegetables are and how full your tart is, it could boil over and/or leak.) Bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes, until the pastry is done and the cheese is melted and browned in spots. Let it cool a little bit before cutting.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cuban-Style Bread - perfect for Cuban sandwiches!

One of the key components of a real Cuban sandwich is the right kind of bread. Yesterday, I went with sliced sourdough, which was good, but not quite right. Not enough crust and a little too ... well, sourdough-ish.

I don't know if I've ever had real Cuban bread, but I've had Cuban sandwiches in Chicago and Miami. And I've read a lot about what it's supposed to be like.

Unfortunately, descriptions of what the bread is supposed to be varies depending on who is describing it.

It also depends on if they're talking about making the bread or buying it. Once source said French bread was a good substitute, but baguettes are completely wrong.

I've also read recipes that said the dough was soft and other that said the dough was fairly stiff. Instructions, rising times, and type of flour were all over the map.

The only consistent thing was that the recipes were all very inconsistent.

On the other hand, most of the recipes include some form of fat. Usually a solid fat. Often lard.

Oh, and the other consistent thing was that for each recipe, there were people who claimed the bread was exactly right.

I have a feeling that lard was probably a traditional ingredient, but the tub lard that's found in most grocery stores isn't that good, and I have yet to find a decent source for leaf lard. Somewhere in the distant past I found a recipe for Cuban bread that used margarine. Odd, I know.

I seldom use margarine, and pretty much only for specific recipes that call for it. I'd bet that recipe I found started with lard, then vegetable shortening was substituted, and finally it became margarine.

Since then, I've tweaked the recipe quite a bit. I'm pretty sure this is far from being traditional Cuban bread, but it has a subtle sweetness from the honey and it spreads nicely so it's a perfect height for a sandwich that you're going to smash in a press.

While the bread doesn't have a crisp crust to start, it crisps nicely in the sandwich press. Not teeth-shattering hard, but nicely crisp.

Meanwhile, I kept the margarine in this recipe. It just seems to work. If you don't like margarine you could use vegetable shortening or butter. Or better yet, if you have access to good-quality lard, you might want to give that a try.

I won't call this Cuban bread because it isn't, but I'll call it...

Bread for Cuban Sandwiches

1 cup warm water
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 cup (4 1/2 ounces) bread flour
1 1/2 cups (6 3/4 ounces) all purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons room temperature margarine

Put the water, honey, and yeast in the bowl of your stand mixer and set aside for 10 minutes until it get foamy. add the bread flour and all purpose flour and knead with the dough hook until the dough becomes elastic.

Add the salt and margarine and continue kneading until it is completely incorporated and the dough is very smooth, shiny and elastic. The dough will be very soft. Flour your work surface and knead the dough by hand for a minute or so, then form it into a ball. Drizzle some olive oil in the bowl stand mixer bowl, and return the dough to the bowl. Turn it over a few times to coat it with oil, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside to rise until doubled, about an hour.

Sprinkle some cornmeal on a baking sheet and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. When the dough has doubled, flour your work surface again and turn the dough out. Divide it in half and form two loaves about 3 inches in diameter. Place the loaves on the pan seam-side down, leaving plenty of room between them for rising and spreading. Cover the loaves with plastic wrap and set aside to rise until doubled, about 30 minutes.

When the loaves have doubled, slash the top shallowly and bake them at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes, until they are golden brown. Move them to a rack to cool before slicing.

For Cuban sandwiches, spread the bread with your brown mustard and/or mayonnaise, then stack up ham, roast pork and Swiss cheese and add some hamburger dill pickles. Smash and grill the bread on a sandwich press until it's all warm and the cheese gets melty.

Check out the previous post for more about Cuban sandwiches.

This has been submitted to Yeastspotting.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Almost Cuban Sandwiches

I love Cubans sandwiches, and I usually go all the way, making the bread specifically for the sandwiches and making sure I have all the right ingredients on hand.

This time, the sandwiches weren't that well planned. I had a chunk of ham and a chunk of pork roast in the freezer - leftovers from other meals - and I decided to use that for sandwiches. Perfect, so far.

But I decided not to make the bread. I had a nice loaf of sourdough, and I used that instead. I didn't have Swiss cheese, but I did have another white melty cheese on hand, and I figured that would work almost as well.

These weren't real Cuban sandwiches by any stretch of the imagination, but they were still good. Better than your average throw-random-stuff-on-bread sandwich.

The first time I had a Cuban sandwich, it was at a Cuban restaurant in Chicago. We went there several times for dinner, many more times for sandwiches, and whenever I was in the neighborhood, it was likely I'd get some carryout. Not really often, considering it wasn't close to home, but as often as was practical.

I tried Cuban sandwiches from a few other places in Chicago, and when we had an airline layover in Miami, we hopped a cab and went for sandwiches. Some to eat there, and a few more to take home.

A Cuban sandwich is a fairly simple thing. I mean, after all, it's just a sandwich. But this one's a classic for a reason. It's more than the sum of its parts. It's a perfect balance of tastes and textures. If you've never had one you should give it a try.

The mustard and mayo are sometimes debated - some people use one or the other, but the ones I had used both, so that's what I do.

These are best with something approximating the Cuban bread. A crusty baguette or a loaf of French bread will work.

Check back tomorrow for a recipe for a recipe for a different bread recipe to use to make Cuban sandwiches.

Almost Cuban Sandwiches

This is how it was assembled, from bottom to top: 
Slice of sourdough
Smear of brown mustard
Sandwich dill slices
Thinly sliced ham
Thinly sliced roast pork
White melting cheese (I used scamorza, which is sort of like provolone)
Smear of mayo on the top slice of bread

All of this spent some quality time in my sandwich press until the bread was toasty, the meat was warm, and the cheese melted a bit.

Sliced, and served while still hot.

This has been submitted to Yeastspotting.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Easy(er) Croissants - and a chocolate croissant variation

There may not be such a thing as easy croissants, but I guarantee these are easier than any of the more traditional recipes. The first time I made croissants, it was quite a production as I read the instructions, measured the dough exactly, and folded different ways at different stages.

And of course, the dough had to be refrigerated in between the different rolling and folding stages. Those resting stages in between meant that I had to work on this on a day I'd be around to work on the dough at intervals throughout the process. The resulting croissants were good, but it was definitely a recipe for special occasions or for days when I had nothing else to do.

After a few batches of croissants with different recipes, the process got a little easier, and I got a little sloppier with the measuring. Seriously, the croissants are not going to fail if you roll the dough a half-inch longer or shorter than the recipe demands.

Then, this brainstorm came along. Why not make the method easier? The important thing is the flaky, buttery layers, and that doesn't require military precision or strange folding rituals. This dough recipe is a cross between pie dough, sweet flaky pastry dough, and traditional croissant dough, and easy enough to make just about any time you want it.

If you've always wanted to make croissants but the idea has intimidated you, give these a try. They're just as buttery and flavorful, with beautiful layers, a shattery crust, and tender insides. What more could you want?

Okay, how about this? We all know that croissants are best the day they're made. You can make this recipe up to the point where the dough is folded and refrigerated, then bake it over the next few days, as you need it, and some folks think they're even better after a day's rest.

The recipe makes 16 small croissants, so the serving size is reasonable.

Easy(er) Croissants

2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup cold milk
1 large egg
11 1/4 ounces (2 1/2 cups) all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick salted butter, frozen
1 stick unsalted butter, frozen

Take the butter out of the freezer and let it sit at room temperature while you work on the rest. You want it as cold as possible, but still able to be cut.

Put the yeast, water and sugar into a medium bowl and stir to combine. Set aside until it begins to get foamy, about 5 minutes. Add the milk and egg, and beat lightly to break up the egg and combine it all.

Put the flour and salt into your food processor, and pulse to distribute the salt. Cut each stick of butter into tablespoon-sized pieces, then cut each of those pieces in half. Put all of the pieces into the food processor with the flour and pulse about 10 times to distribute the butter and break the chunks just a little. You don't want small pieces as you would for pie crust; larger chunks are preferable.

Add the flour and butter to the liquid in the bowl, and fold gently with a spatula until all the flour is moistened and it is well combined, being careful not to break up the butter. The butter should still be fairly hard at this point. The dough will be very wet; don't worry about it. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.

The mixture can be used the next day, or kept refrigerated for an additional day if you aren't ready for it. When you are ready, flour your work surface generously, and have more flour standing ready. Turn the dough out onto your work surface, sprinkle some additional flour over the top, and form it into a rough square.

Working quickly, roll the dough out to an approximate 16-inch square. Because it's so wet, it should roll easily, but it might be a bit sticky. Add flour as needed on top and underneath to keep it from sticking. Fold the dough in thirds, like a letter.

Then fold it in thirds again, to make a square.

Keep the work surface lightly floured, just to keep it from sticking, but it shouldn't need as much as before. Do the same roll-and-fold two more times. Since the dough is so soft, you should be able to do this fast enough that the butter won't get too soft and squishy. If you get delayed and the butter does soften, put it in the fridge and continue once the butter has firmed up again. After the last fold, flatten it a bit, then put it into a plastic bag and put it into the refrigerator for at least an hour, or up to three days.

When you are ready to make the croissants, preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

The dough will have risen while refrigerated. Cut the dough into quarters.

 Roll the first quarter into about a 6-inch square. Cut the square into quarters diagonally.

Take one of your right triangles of dough and roll or stretch it into a pie-shaped wedge at least seven inches long. You can make it longer if the dough is thick enough to allow it, but at least seven inches will give you enough length to have attractive wraps.

Starting at the wide end, roll the dough toward the the point.

Place the finished croissants on the prepared baking sheet with the point underneath. Curl the dough into a crescent shape.

Continue with as many croissants as you want to bake, leaving room on the baking sheet for them to rise as they bake.

Cover them with plastic wrap and set aside for 30 minutes. They won't rise much at all, but they should feel puffy instead of firm. Brush the croissants with an egg wash, if desired, or leave them plain.

Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, until they are golden brown. Remove to a rack to cool. The croissants on the left were eggwashed. The ones on the right were left plain.

Variation:  Chocolate-Filled Croissants 
(like pain au chocolat)

For chocolate-filled croissants, roll the quarter of dough into a rectangle about 10 x 6 inches, then cut that into strips about 2 1/2 inches wide x 6 inches long.

Put your favorite chocolate at one end, and roll up. It works best to make sure the dough is just a little wider than the chocolate and fold it over to enclose the chocolate when you start rolling, so it doesn't seep out during baking.

Place the rolls seam-side down on the pan and allow them to rise and bake as before.

Looks good inside, hmmmmm?

These are great served while they're still a little warm, and are best the same day.

This was published on Serious Eats and has been submitted to Yeastspotting.