Thursday, June 30, 2011

BBA #1: Anadama Bread

As a child, I fancied myself quite the bread baker. At 14, I signed up for the Advanced Yeast Breads competition during our summer 4-H Fair. Even though it was my first year competing, I decided I didn't want to waste my time with the Beginner or Intermediate Yeast Bread categories.

Yes, the competition was minor. All who signed up were able to participate, and, if you successfully baked a yeast bread and filled out an eight-page booklet about your work, you received a blue ribbon and were rewarded with three dollars. Even then, that wasn't much.

But I was eager, and I decided to make potato and onion dinner rolls. They required an overnight rise (which I now know helped them ferment and helped extract those delicious flavors from the wheat). They required a light misting with water, to help simulate conditions found in professional bread ovens. They had a light egg wash to bring out some color during baking.

Did I mention that was my first time ever baking bread?

Those first potato and onion rolls did end up being somewhat successful, earning me a blue ribbon and that coveted three dollar prize. However, the baking experience only demonstrated to me that I could successfully follow a recipe and achieve a desired result. 14-year-old me just had no understanding of the beauty of bread making, how yeast can coax flavors out of the bread, how a slow fermentation can work wonders, and how the same base ingredients can be modified into countless unique breads.

Perhaps current me still isn't quite sure, but with The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread by Peter Reinhart, a delightful birthday gift from Thomas and Alyna, I'm learning.

A few years ago, Pinch My Salt challenged bakers to bake through The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread, completing each of the recipes in order. Pinch My Salt started the journey a few years ago, but the group has just taken off, and new bakers are constantly taking on the challenge.

So, with the Anadama Bread, I'm officially beginning the BBA Challenge and starting out on a journey toward true knowledge of bread. It's a delicious bread with a delightful myth behind it. According to Wikipedia, a fisherman was angry at his wife Anna for leaving him with nothing but cornmeal and molasses. After she left, he threw in flour and yeast and tossed the bread in the oven, cursing his wife the entire time shouting "Anna, damn her." Inspired neighbors are said to have adopted the recipe and changed the name slightly.

This bread incorporates a delicious mix of cornmeal, bread flour and molasses. The cornmeal soaks overnight with water, so that the natural sugars trapped in the corn are released. The soaker is followed by three rises and a long knead. I kneaded the bread by hand, which gave me a good sense of how the bread came together. These loaves rose beautifully, almost ridiculously well.

After enjoying a fresh slice with butter, I reminisced more about 14-year-old me. I thought about the first dish we learned how to make in Home Ec: egg-in-a-hole toast. I cut a circle in the bread, buttered it, put it in a hot pan, and cracked an egg in the middle. A perfect dinner after a day of bread baking.

As part of the BBA Challenge, we're agreeing not to post recipes from The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread. If you're inspired, get the book and bake along with us! 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Happiness on a Plate: Tuscaloosa Tollhouse Pie

Words cannot describe how much I enjoyed this pie. It's the most delicious cross between a warm chocolate chip cookie and a pecan pie (except with walnuts!).

You will not regret making this pie. You probably have all the ingredients to make it in your pantry right now, so you might want to throw that pie crust in the freezer to start cooling.

This belongs on Joy the Baker's list of perfect dishes to make for boys or on a list of best foods for any situation. I think this is a pie that could satisfy any empty stomach, mend relationships or ease heartache (perhaps I exaggerate a little...). 

Bring this little beauty to a picnic in the park. Take it to your child's class party (You will make one teacher very happy!). Slice into it at the end of a fancy dinner party. This pie will fit in no matter where you take it. 

Where do you want to bring this pie?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sugar Snap Peas with Mint and Cheese

Franny's is one of my favorite restaurants in Brooklyn. They are known for their brick-oven pizzas and carefully executed pasta dishes.

The menu changes every day. They buy primarily from local and organic vendors. When you flip your menu over, you see where they sourced each ingredient from. They even convert their leftover kitchen grease to biodiesel fuel. Their mission is to be environmentally responsible, and it shows in every decision they make.

Recently, I had the perfect early summer dish at Franny's. It was called Sugar Snap Peas with Mint, Scallions and Pecorino Marzolino. The sugar snap peas, grown at Evolutionary Organics in New Paltz, New York, were perfectly sweet and crunchy. They had been lightly blanched and then sauteed up. The pecorino marzolino, a fresh mild sheep's milk cheese (like fresh mozzarella with a firmer texture) was cubed and complimented the peas perfectly.

Since Franny's menu changes so often, I knew those sugar snap peas I loved might not be on the menu the next time I came in. If I wanted to have them again, and if I wanted to have them often (the Franny's sugar snap peas were $12!), I would have to recreate the recipe myself.

A little searching and I found this recipe from Meatless Mondays that I took and adapted slightly to fit with what I was craving. I forgot about the scallions that Franny's included, so I'll have to try added a sprinkling of those in with my saute next time.

What's the best dish you've had at a restaurant lately?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie in the Park

I signed up to bake a pie and bring it to a Pie in the Park picnic at Smorgasburg last weekend, but I had trouble determining what type of pie I wanted to make. I kept finding tarts I was interested in (Do tarts count as pie? They're included in the same cookbook sections, but I couldn't be sure.). I considered a Tuscaloosa Tollhouse Pie, kind of like a big chocolate chip cookie in a pie crust, and a chocolate pecan pie, but it didn't seem like the right season. I was dying to make a Mississippi Mud Pie, but that included ice cream, not the best for an outdoor picnic. I avoided pies that required whipped cream to be just perfect. I searched for that pie that could stand on its own.

Finally, I went to the Union Square Famers' Market on Monday for inspiration. I saw the first blueberries of the season (they still needed some time), last year's cellared apples and honey. Then I rounded the corner. There they were. Beautiful pints of rosy New Jersey strawberries and bright red stalks of rhubarb, just calling out my name.

Strawberry-rhubarb pie. The market determined it for me.

I just needed a recipe. Previous strawberry-rhubarb pies I've made turned out delicious but runny, and the filling didn't really stay together after the first slice was cut. Those pies tended to use cornstarch as a thickener, but I remembered my mom using instant tapioca that came in a bright red box to thicken her fruit pies.

Deb from Smitten Kitchen had come to the same realization that tapioca worked wonders as a thickener. She'd also incorporated brown sugar into the pie filling and used less sugar so the tartness of the rhubarb would stand out. I knew I had found my recipe. Deb never lets me down.

The pie picnic? It was certainly enjoyable. I ate three slices of delicious pies, made by both amature and professional bakers. My favorite was a Nutty Monkey Pie, loaded with toasted walnuts, dark chocolate bits and banana chips (though I could have left those out). Unfortunately, there were A LOT of strawberry-rhubarb pies. I was encouraged to see so many bakers going for the seasonal ingredients, but it meant that my little guy just wasn't the star of the show.

Oh well. The little bite I had of my pie was delicious.

And, Pie in the Park sent us home with these beautiful custom recipe cards.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Black Bean and Sweet Plantain Quesadillas: Pequena Style

One of the problems with recreating your favorite restaurant dishes at home is that you are forced to actually confront how unhealthy the dishes are. This has been my main dilemma while recreating Pequena's black bean and sweet plantain quesadillas.

The Pequena quesadilla (featured below, left) oozes with cheese. The tortillas are perfectly crisp. The plantains are sweet and just dripping with moisture. The black beans are in perfect proportion to the plantains. It's topped with a hot salsa and a little more cheese.

For my first attempt, I sprayed the tortillas with a little cooking spray, sauteed the sweet plantains in just a bit of canola oil and butter, and added a tablespoon or two of cheese to each quesadilla. The finished product was not even close to the quesadilla that I loved. Where was the crisp shell? Where where the plump plantains and the oozing cheese?

A few modifications later, I had a quesadilla I was happy with that was still decently healthy. I buttered the tortillas (lightly) on one side, bumped up the ratio of butter to olive oil so it was equal, let the plantains blacken until they seemed almost inedible (to get that sweet flavor I was craving), and upped the cheese quantity slightly.

The end result is something I can not only enjoy eating for a few lunches and dinners in a row but feel good about.

And thankfully, Pequena is just a few blocks away when a craving for an authentic black bean and sweet plantain quesadilla strikes.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Perfect Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

I get one magazine in the mail: Cook's Illustrated. It comes out six times a year from America's Test Kitchen, just outside of Boston. When they publish a recipe, it's not just a recipe pulled out of their archives or a favorite old recipe with an ingredient or two changed. The premise is that they scientifically test recipes to come up with the best iteration of a recipe possible. I read it cover to cover (even recipes like "Rescuing Grilled Beef Teriyaki," which I never plan to do).

They baked over 700 cookies to come up with their Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe. There's so much about this recipe that is better than the recipe on the back of the Tollhouse Chocolate Chips. There's more brown sugar than white sugar, which makes the cookie chewier, and dark brown sugar is used, which has a richer flavor. Instead of softened butter, the butter is melted and browned, giving it a nuttiness. An egg white is removed to make the cookies a little chewier. The cookies are larger than usual, which makes them chewier in the middle.

Best of all is the "whisk and wait" technique that Cook's Illustrated discovered (by accident, initially, when the dough was left to sit when the phone rang). The sugar, egg and vanilla mixture is whisked for 30 seconds and then left to sit for 3 minutes. This process is repeated four times. As the batter "waits," the sugar dissolves in the melted butter, vanilla and egg mixture. Dissolved sugar caramelizes at a lower temperature, creating rich flavors in the finished cookies. Moisture from the sugar burns off at the edges of the cookie, while the moisture simultaneously collects in the middle.

The Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe yields the best chocolate chip cookies I've ever had. The only problem was that I wanted to make oatmeal chocolate chip cookies on Wednesday night, and I wanted them to be just as good.

I searched hard, and just couldn't find an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe that lived up to my expectations (I still love this one, but it's just not the same when you know that perfect oatmeal chocolate chip cookie could be out there).

So I decided to create one. I compared America's Test Kitchen's chocolate chip cookie recipe to their oatmeal cookie recipe. The oatmeal cookies seemed to use 1 part flour to every 2 parts oatmeal. I scaled back quantities to match the smaller batch the perfect chocolate chip cookies called for, and I kept the butter and dark brown sugar and the "whisk and wait" technique that I loved.

The result was a cookie that I am delighted with. It's perfectly chewy in the center with edges that are slightly crisp. The bottom is browned, and the flavors are rich. I like it more than the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies I shared a few weeks ago.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Baked Sunday Mornings: Rosemary Apricot Squares

My breakfasts over the past week have not been impressive. Cliff Bars picked up from the grocery store in the morning, a bagel and cream cheese. My Sunday project was to make something that could sustain me through breakfasts for the next week. Although these rosemary apricot squares appeared in the Cookies and Bars section of Baked Explorations, and not the Breakfast section, Matt and Renalto did happen to mention that these squares are "great for breakfast." That was all the motivation that I needed.

These also happened to be the upcoming recipe for a baking group called Baked Sunday Mornings. They're baking their way through Baked Explorations: Classic American Desserts Reinvented, one of the new cookbooks I got for my birthday. I'm a little late to the game (they started November 21st with Nutella Scones), but they don't mind. They're one of the more relaxed baking groups. They want you to enjoy the experience, not feel stressed about it. The goal is to post as often as you can, and they have opportunities to post every two weeks.

While the rosemary apricot square alone might not hold you over until lunch, it will be a delightful break from your normal breakfast routine. The rosemary shortbread is light, and the rosemary infuses perfectly throughout the dough. It's the real star in this dish. The apricot filling is almost like a homemade apricot jam. It's flavorful from the infusion of honey and brandy, but it's not too sweet. The crumbly pecan topping provides the perfect contrast against the sweeter inner layer.

My square pan is no more (remember?), so I altered the recipe slightly by baking it in a round pan. I didn't put parchment paper up the sides of the pan; I just buttered the pan well and the bars came out easily in pie slice shaped pieces. My round pan had a smaller area than the square pan would have, and next time I would decrease the shortbread amount slightly so that the layers were more proportional.

Visit Baked Sunday Mornings for the recipe and to view all the Rosemary Apricot Scone recipes!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Some Ice Cream Cupcakes I'm Dying To Try

The 2011 Ice Cream Contest entry deadline was June 15, and as bakers, we're all waiting eagerly to see which cupcakes make the top three (I made New York State Upside-Down Ice Cream Cupcakes!). They're were so many gorgeous, creative entries. While I wait, I wanted to share with you just a few of my favorite ice cream cupcake entries. Click on the links for more information about these beautiful cupcakes including recipes and more pictures.

Here they are, in no particular order.

I could still be obsessed with hazelnuts after making the Nutella Scones a few weeks back, but these Honey Hazelnut Cupcakes with Gianduja Gelato caught my attention right away. The presentation, with just a few hazelnuts nestled in the middle of the carefully placed chocolate honey ganache, is just beautiful. The finished cupcake is simple and classy. Admire it at Vivian Macaroon.

These Chocolate Peanut Butter Sand Pail Cupcakes are adorable, and they look just like their namesake. They're by Chip Chip Hooray, and they feature chocolate peanut butter cupcakes (my FAVORITE combination), Milk 'n Cookies ice cream and a peanut butter buttercream. They're topped with some crumbled brown sugar (doesn't it look just like sand?). The handle on the side just seals the deal. I think these would be perfect for a birthday party by the beach.

After the best s'mores of my life while canoeing recently, I just couldn't pass up these s'mores cupcake ice cream sandwiches. They're stuffed with marshmallow ice cream. They've got graham cracker crusts on the top and bottom. And they've got a layer of chocolate cupcake. Divine. Thank you, 52 Kitchen Adventures, for making me so, so hungry.

These Take 6 cupcakes, inspired by the Take 5 candy bar, are a delicious creation by Parsnips and Sprockets. The bottom layer is a chocolate cupcake. It's topped with peanut butter frosting, vanilla ice cream, pretzels, peanuts, a homemade caramel sauce, chocolate shell AND chocolate dipped pretzel. Not only are they absolutely adorable, they're also vegan and completely homemade! Visit Amber's blog for a handful of other ideas of how to arrange the layers to create beautiful ice cream cupcakes.

I had to include at least one cupcake that was chocolate free (have you noticed a trend?), and this Lemon Almond Love cupcake from Young Idealistic Baker caught my eye. She made a lemon-almond cupcake, filled it with lemon curd and a homemade almond ice cream, topped it with an almond butter cream frosting, and placed the most creative flower I've ever seen on top. The flower is made out of thinly sliced almonds, carefully placed around like petals, with a sprinkle flower center. And, she had such a creative cupcake sampling process. I think I'll have to recruit volunteers to do that next year!

This Meringue Gelato cupcake by The Insomniac Baker was one of the first entries posted for this year's Ice Cream Cupcake Contest, and it's stuck with me ever since. Alisa describes it as "a very light cupcake with a darkly seductive taste." It's two angel food cupcakes, sandwiching a homemade meringue gelato (with real, crushed meringues inside it!), topped with a swiss buttercream frosting, and finished with a cute meringue hat. They were for her brother's birthday (the lucky duck). With a presentation like this, I can overlook the omission of chocolate. 

Visit Cupcake Project on Facebook to view all the entries. Which ice cream cupcakes are your favorite? 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Amhari-Atklit (Ethiopian Vegetable Stew)

I think amhari-atklit is my favorite Ethiopian dish. It's a mild vegetable stew, filled with chunks of potatoes, green beans, cabbage and carrots. The vegetables cook up evenly, and they absorb the mild spices they are cooked in. The stew doesn't require any Ethiopian spice mixes, and I had most of the ingredients in my pantry at home. After my big Ethiopian dinner, I ate this dish twice a day for almost a week.

Slow cookers are a necessity if you are planning a big Ethiopian dinner. I made this dish in advance, and I transferred it to a slow cooker to stay warm. If you're like me in a small apartment with no room to store slow cookers (or just don't have a lot of slow cookers lying around at home), borrow them from the guests who are coming to the party.

This stew is a nice contrast to the protein-heavy dishes usually found in Ethiopian cooking.