Perfect Birthday, Perfect Birthday Cake {ModBak}

I remember when M. was a baby. Everything was so new and exciting. I loved being a father so much that I didn’t even mind the crying, midnight feedings, and smelly diapers. I loved the baby stage. Everything was perfect. And it just kept getting better.

Soon, she was smiling and babbling, learning to sit up, then crawl, and eventually walk. She was speaking in complete sentences by 18 months. And I fell head over heals in love with the toddler stage.

And before I knew it, she was a preschooler, exercising her budding motor skills and imagination. I watched her play and learn and explore her world. And I knew this was my favorite age.

Soon M. was starting school, and I watched with great delight as she made new friends and soaked up everything she was taught. And while I was enjoying this new favorite stage, along came A., and I realized how much I loved the baby stage all over again.

I can honestly say that my favorite stage has always been the one my girls are in at any given time. So right now, my absolute favorite ages are 13 and six. A. is at such a fun age — learning to read, exploring her world with curiosity and imagination. She can create anything with paper, scissors, and tape. I came home the other day to find an elephant swimming in a pond at the base of a mountain in the living room. Six is an awesome age!

And I love seeing the young lady M. is becoming and watching her grow in beauty and confidence. She is a great student and a good friend. And to my great delight, she is starting to really enjoy cooking and baking. So when she said she wanted to make my birthday cake this year, I suggested a recipe from The Modern Baker then got out of the way. It was called “Perfect Birthday Cake”, and the name turned out to be quite fitting.

So here are my girls, baking my cake and making me proud.

M. knows the importance of mise en place

Reading the recipe

Checking the recipe one more time

OK, so I am an unabashedly proud daddy, but I’m also a serious baker. And as such, I can honestly say this was the best birthday cake I’ve ever had.

So, I guess my three favorite ages are six, 13, and 42. Until next year, that is.

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Sweet Dough Explosion — Artisan Breads Every Day

I recently found myself with family unexpectedly coming to town. I wasn’t sure who would be here, how long they would stay, or whether we would be eating here or at restaurants. Flush with my recent audience with Peter Reinhart and my success making his sticky buns recipe, I decided that I would mix up a big batch of sweet dough and at least have breakfast covered. When I say big batch, I mean a double batch. Enough to make at least four recipes.

I mixed up the dough, then grabbed my dough bucket and packed it in. The recipe says to make sure there is enough room in the container for the dough to double. No problem, as the dough bucket holds more than six quarts, and the dough barely reached the two-quart mark. I put the dough in the refrigerator for an overnight rest. When I opened the fridge later that evening, I was surprised at how much the dough had grown already. But, again, I wasn’t concerned, as I knew there was plenty of room in the container and the dough does most of its rising at the beginning, when it is still warm.

So imagine my surprise when I found this beast in my refrigerator the next morning:

The top and bottom were both bulged way out, but to its credit, the container held. I donned an oven mit and popped the seal.

With that bit of excitement behind me, I used half the dough to make creamy caramel sticky buns and, at my daughter’s request, cinnamon rolls.

The sticky buns were every bit as good as the first two batches I made from Peter’s recipes. In fact, I liked the creamy caramel buns as well or better than the honey almond ones.

With all the hubbub around here, I didn’t get a picture of the cinnamon rolls after they had been topped with  cream cheese frosting, so you’ll have to trust me when I say they looked and tasted fantastic. I didn’t think I could love another sweet as much as sticky buns, but these rolls were amazing.

A few days later, I made crumb cake with half of the dough that was left.

It was really good, too, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the cinnamon rolls or sticky buns. I had some fresh blueberries, and I was going to put them on the crumb cake, but I forgot. Had I remembered them, I think the crumb cake would have stood up well next to the other sweet dough recipes.

By this time the family had gone, and my sweet tooth was more than satiated. So I froze the rest of the sweet dough to use another day. My father-in-law just brought us several quarts of fresh blueberries from his bushes, so that day may be soon.

Pita Bread {ModBak}

Pita bread is the third recipe in the Breads section of the Modern Baker Challenge. This is another flatbread and one that I was really looking forward to making. After all, who doesn’t love soft, puffy pitas? And the thought of them pillowing in my oven had me fairly quivering with excitement.

So, let’s just get this out of the way. My first time attempt at pita bread was an epic disaster. The dough was really wet, so when I went to roll out the individual pitas, I knew there was a danger of them sticking together. The logical thing to do, as any beginning home baker could tell you, would have been to flour the dough before rolling it out. But did I do that? No.

I rolled the dough on my Roul ‘Pat, so I knew it wouldn’t stick. But as I finished each pita, I had to stack them somewhere. Again, logic and even basic experience would have told me to flour them. Instead, I stacked them between layers of wax paper. By the time I had finished rolling them all out, they were glued to the wax paper, and nothing was going to get them unstuck.

The last two pitas were still on the Roul ‘Pat, so I decided to go ahead and bake them. I floured my peel, gently placed the dough on it, and slid the pitas into the oven, whereupon both of them folded over coming off the peel. So, for my first attempt at pitas, this is what I ended up with:

Frustrated and slightly humbled, I was nonetheless undeterred. And so the next day, I made pita bread again. The dough is mixed in the food processor and comes together really quickly, even with a 10-minute autolyse. Once the mixing is finished, the dough is set aside to rest for an hour before rolling out the pitas.

As mentioned above, the dough is really wet. Although NM doesn’t mention how slack it should be, I got the impression from the recipe that is was supposed to be that way. Several times in the recipe, he says to scrape the dough from the bowl, which leads me to think it’s supposed to be wet and somewhat sticky.

After fermenting the dough, I turned it out onto my bench (floured this time), divided the dough into 12 pieces, and rounded each piece into a ball.

While the dough rested for 15 minutes, I got the oven ready to bake by putting my baking tiles in place and preheating the oven to 500° F. Pitas bake very quickly in a hot oven, so it’s important to preheat the oven for at least half an hour (45 minutes is better) so that your stone is really hot.

I rolled each dough ball out to about seven inches in diameter, moving my rolling pin in every direction to try to get the pitas as round as possible.

The dough is supposed to rest for 15 minutes after rolling, and I planned to bake three pitas at a time, so I started my timer after I had rolled the third dough ball. That way, I could start baking as soon as the first three pitas had rested for the correct amount of time. Sufficient flour on both the dough and the peel guaranteed that there would not be a repeat of my first disaster.

I loaded the first three pitas in the oven, closed the door, and held my breath. Would then puff up like they were supposed to? I needn’t have worried, because within a minute or two, they looked like this:

I baked them for four-and-a-half minutes each, until they were puffy and slightly browned.

OK, so they didn’t stick. And they looked and smelled great. But how did they taste? I can honestly say these pitas were as good as any I have ever eaten. So much so that I made them again the next day. And I already have a request from my wife to make more.

When I baked them for the third time, I hit on something that really helped. When I loaded the pitas onto the baking stone, instead of putting them directly on the peel, I put them on parchment paper, which I had placed on the peel. The pitas slid right off the peel, and the parchment didn’t interfere with the heat from the baking stone. I alternated between two pieces of parchment, and they held up through the baking process.

If you’ve always wanted to try your hand at making pita bread, give this recipe a try. It comes together quickly, is really easy, and makes some of the best pitas you can imagine.

Wordless Wednesday — Puffy Pita Preview

Caramelized Figs {Recipe}

I recently bought a flat of 24 fresh figs at the market. Figs have a short season, and they are usually quite expensive in Northeast Ohio even when in season, so I was thrilled to find them for a good price. Of course, once I got them home, I had to figure out what to do with them. I scoured the ‘net looking for fresh fig recipes, and as usual, decided in the end to come up with something on my own.

I found a number of recipes for caramelized figs, figs with balsamic glaze, and fig compote. None of them was exactly what I was looking for, so I cobbled together a few recipes and came up with this one.

Caramelized Figs

Ingredients

  • 24 fresh figs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 stick cinnamon, broken into pieces
  • 3 whole cloves

Directions

  1. Wash and drain the figs, then cut off the stem end.
  2. Stand the figs upright in a stock pot. Sprinkle with sugar, then add remaining ingredients.
  3. Cover the pot an allow to sit overnight.
  4. The next day, uncover the pot and heat over medium-high heat until the juice begins to boil. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the figs have cooked down and the sauce has thickened, about five hours.
  5. Cool in the pot, then transfer to a clean jar and store in the refrigerator. The flavor will continue to develop over several weeks, and the figs will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely

Makes about one quart.

Serve the figs with savory dishes like roasted meats or cheeses, or use to top ice cream or in rice or bread pudding. The rich, spicy flavor of the figs and sauce will put you in mind of the holidays. 

My favorite way to eat them is right out of the container.

Modern Baker Challenge — Turkish Flatbread

The second recipe in the Breads section of The Modern Baker is Turkish flatbread, another fairly simple bread with a short list of ingredients — AP flour, salt, yeast, water, and olive oil. One of the interesting things about most of the flatbreads in this section of the book is that they all have more or less the same ingredients. Only the proportions and techniques change from recipe to recipe.

As with the Armenian Barbary Bread, I halved the recipe so that I would end up with just one loaf of this bread. The dough is mixed very briefly in the food processor, then placed in an oiled bowl and allowed to rest for a 20-minute autolyse.

NM says to turn the dough out onto a floured board and give it several stretch and folds. I left it in the bowl and folded it over itself about 20 times with a bench scraper.

After fermenting for an hour, the dough is turned out and shaped. I floured the bottom of my 9-inch springform pan and stretched and pressed the dough to cover it.

In retrospect, I should either have floured the form better or (preferably) sprayed it with oil. I was able to get the dough off the form, but it stuck a bit and had to be reshaped on the pan.

Once the dough was on the pan, I dusted it lightly with flour and dimpled the top of the bread with my fingertips.

After a brief 20 minute rest, the dough was baked at 450° F for about 20 minutes, until it was puffy and golden brown.

We ate this bread with hummus, baba ganoush, and tabouli. It was light and delicious. Definitely one to make again.

Recipe — Cultured Butter

A few weeks ago, I took a trip up to the Westside Market in Cleveland. Among the treasures I brough home that day were three kinds of butter — Kerrygold, goat butter, and Vermont cultured butter. I put the first two in the refrigerator but left the cultured butter out to use. 

It would be almost impossible to overstate how good this butter is. I don’t even remember what I first used it on; I might have just tasted it from my finger. All I know is that it was as if I were tasting butter for the first time. It was rich, creamy, with just the slightest tang to it. I knew right then and there that I had to figure out how to make this for myself. 

After reading a number of articles and blogs about making cultured butter, I came up with the following recipe. It’s fairly straightforward and well worth the time and effort. 

Cultured Butter 

Ingredients 

  • One quart heavy cream
  • 1/3 cup whole milk yogurt (Dannon is a good brand; make sure whatever you use doesn’t contain any gums or stabilizers)
  • Salt, to taste

Directions 

  1. Mix the cream and yogurt in a clean glass or ceramic bowl. Avoid plastic, which can harbor bacteria in any scratches or imperfections. Cover and let rest for 12 -18 hours, until the mixture has thickened slightly and tastes somewhat tangy. If your room is cool (i.e., less than the mid-70s), it may take longer to culture.
  2. Once the mixture has cultured,  cool it slightly by placing in the refrigerator for an hour or so, or by submerging the bowl in a sinkful of ice water for a minute or two. The ideal temperature is around 60° F.
  3. Prepare a bowl of ice water, which you will use to clean the butter.
  4. Put the cream mixture in a mixing bowl. If using a stand mixer, use the whisk attachment. Beat the mixture on high until stiff peaks form, then reduce the speed to low. Watch closely at this point, as the cream mixture will soon break, separating into butter and buttermilk. If you have a splash guard on your mixer, you might want to use it so you don’t have buttermilk flying everywhere. Once the mixture breaks, turn off the mixer.
  5. Pour the buttermilk into a clean container. You can use this just as you would commercial buttermilk for drinking or baking. If you aren’t going to use it within a week or so, it can be frozen and used later for baking.
  6. Press the butter with a spatula, spoon, or your hand to remove as much buttermilk as possible.
  7. Pour water from the bowl of ice water over the butter to cover. Rinse the butter by kneading it under the water, then dump off the water. Continue to add water and rinse until the water you pour off is clear. It is necessary to remove all the residual buttermilk in order to keep the butter from spoiling too quickly.
  8. Once the butter has been cleaned thoroughly, knead it on the counter for a minute. If you want to salt the butter, press the butter out on the counter, sprinkle lightly with salt, then knead it in. To store the butter, you can press it into ramekins or, as I prefer, roll it into logs. Cover the ramekins or wrap the logs tightly in plastic wrap. If you make two butter rolls, you can freeze one for later use.

Yields two cups buttermilk and about 12 ounces butter. 

Cultured cream

Broken Butter

 

Buttermilk

 

Rinsing the Butter

 

6-ounce roll of cultured butter

Noon Rogani, aka “Cinnamon Turban Bread”

The July BOM (bread of the month) for the Facebook Artisan Bread Bakers group was Noon Rogani, a breakfast bread from Azerbaijan. We followed the recipe posted on the King Arthur website. This simple yet impressive bread is filled with cinnamon, sugar, and butter, and looks almost like a giant cinnamon roll. The shape is supposed to resemble a turban: hence, the name my daughters gave it — Cinnamon Turban Bread.

The dough is fairly straightforward and consists of flour, yeast, water, salt, sugar, and vegetable oil. My six-year-old helped me mix up the dough. We began by weighing the flour.

Then we mixed the flour, yeast, and water to make a slurry, which we allowed to rest for 10 minutes.

We mixed in the rest of the dough ingredients and kneaded everything together. The recipe was rather vague on the kneading time, saying only to knead “until the dough is smooth and elastic”. I didn’t time myself while I kneaded the dough, but I’m pretty sure I under-kneaded and didn’t develop the gluten enough. The next time I make this recipe, I’ll knead the dough for about 10-12 minutes and make sure I get a good windowpane.

After kneading the dough, we put it in an oiled bowl to ferment.

After about 40 minutes, I (my daughter had lost interest by this time) dumped the dough out onto the dining room table and pressed it out into a rough square. Then I rolled the dough out to a large square. The recipe said the square should be about 23 inches, but mine was nowhere near that large. I rested the dough several times, but was never able to get it rolled out to the correct size, which I blame on the under-developed gluten mentioned above. 

Never one to let failure dampen my spirits, I pressed on with my dough as it was. The next step was to brush the dough with melted butter and sprinkle it with cinnamon sugar. Then I rolled the bread like a jelly roll. I continued to roll the dough like you would a baguette, stretching the rope out gently as I went. The rope was supposed to reach five feet, but again mine fell well short of this goal.

Still undeterred, I twisted the rope from the center to the ends, then coiled it into a turban shape.

After brushing the “turban” with butter, I covered it and let it rest for about 45 minutes. I baked the loaf at 400 degrees F for about 30 minutes, until it was well-browned and baked through.

The final embellishment was my own. Since it looked so much like a giant cinnamon roll, how could I resist glazing it?

I was afraid that the loaf would be too dense, since I wasn’t able to roll it out to the proper length. But it tasted just as others have described it — slightly crunchy on the outside, and warm, gooey, and tender on the inside.

Like a giant cinnamon roll.

Sticky Buns — Artisan Breads Every Day

After meeting Peter Reinhart at the Western Reserve School of Cooking and sampling a host of his baked goods, including two kinds of sticky buns, I couldn’t wait for an excuse to do some baking. The Fourth of July holiday weekend — with family visiting from out of town — gave me just such an excuse.

Although I tested recipes for Peter’s most recent book,  Artisan Breads Every Day, and of course picked up the book as soon as it came out, before the class I still hadn’t baked anything from it. I decided to remedy that by making two kinds of sticky buns for breakfast on Saturday. I made one recipe of sticky buns, and baked half of them with Susan’s (Peter’s wife) formerly secret caramel pecan slurry and the other half with honey almond slurry.

As with many of the recipes in Peter’s new book, the sweet dough came together quickly with very little mixing. It is kept at least overnight or up to a few days in the refrigerator, where it ferments and develops its structure. I also mixed up the slurries, so that on baking day all I had to do was throw it all together.

On Saturday morning I got the dough out of the fridge, cut it into two pieces, and let it rest for about 20 minutes while I prepared the cinnamon-sugar mixture and melted some butter. I rolled each half of the dough out to a 12- x 15-inch rectangle, brushed it with butter, and sprinkled it generously with cinnamon sugar. Then I rolled the dough up from the long side and sliced it into rolls.

I had to soften the slurries in the microwave for a few seconds, as they firmed up to the point of being impossible to spread. Then I slathered the slurries in 9-inch round baking pans and added the buns.

I let the sticky buns rise for about two hours, until they had risen to fill the pans, then prepared the oven for baking.

At first, I forgot to set the pans on a sheet pan to catch any overflow, but I remembered before the slurry boiled over into the oven. The buns took longer to bake than the recipe suggested. In class, Peter stressed the importance of checking to slurry to make sure it has caramelized before taking the rolls out of the oven.

As you can see from the picture, I had pretty good caramelization, with the exception of the very center of the buns made with Susan’s slurry (on the right).

When I pulled the pan out of the oven, it was like I had turned on a bug light for everyone in the house. Within a few minutes, when I was ready to cut them, everyone in my and my sister’s families was standing in my kitchen with anticipation. And once I began serving? Well, no one left the kitchen until both pans of sticky buns were completely gone.

Forgiving my lack of modesty, my sticky buns were every bit as good as the ones we sampled in class. And even though I grew up in Lancaster County, PA, eating traditional sticky buns much like Susan’s recipe, I have to say that I preferred the subtle sweetness of the honey almond buns. But it was such a close call that I think I have to make both of them again just to be sure.

Oh, and there’s one more version in the book I haven’t made yet — creamy caramel. I feel it is my duty to give it a try, too.

Wordless Wednesday — Jellyfish II

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