Girl Versus Dough

Round Eleven — Bretzel Rolls

Sometimes, when I’m feeling a little insecure about my current talents, I reminisce about the days when I used to be able to do certain things. Like do flips on a trampoline. Or fit through one of those collapsible play tunnels. Or have enough imagination to act out an entire three-hour scenario of soap-opera proportions with my Barbies. And sometimes I wish I could do things I’ve never been able to do before. Like run a marathon. Or speak fluent German. Or sustain the energy to write a novel. Alas, though I haven’t met all of my goals, this week I have been able to cross one achievement off my list: make a pretzel. Actually, a bretzel. What is a bretzel, you ask? That’s a good question, one I couldn’t answer myself until I looked it up on the glorious World Wide Web. A bretzel — more specifically, a bretzel roll — is a Bavarian pretzel sandwich roll. In laymen’s terms, it’s a yummy, warm bundle of salty, fluffy, pretzel-y tastiness. And a super-easy recipe, too.

The ingredients and process are simple — mix some yeast, water and flour in a food processor, knead the heck of it, shape it, give it a bath, and you’re done! Yep, that’s right, a bath — a foamy pot of baking soda, the pivotal moment when the dough becomes “pretzel” dough. When the little dough babies are plopped into the pot, the steam gives off that very familiar aroma you waft while walking past an Auntie Anne’s at the mall, or a German bakery — whichever is more relevant.

The dough was extremely elastic but took forever to knead — at least 15 minutes, and even then it didn’t pass the good ol’ windowpane test. When dividing the dough into rolls I used a pizza cutter to ensure more even pieces, and was pretty impressed with my craftiness. And when the rolls came out of the oven, all warm and caramel-brown with a crispy outer shell and an inner fluffy stuffing, the smell of salt dissipating from the soft crosscut in the center… Oh. They. Were. Heavenly.

Debrief: Though the recipe I found (adapted on the food blog Smitten Kitchen from Bon Appetit) strongly encourages/reminds you not to cover bretzel rolls when you store them, but instead leave them uncovered for up to two days, my rolls were as hard as rocks the following morning. In other words, eat them right when they emerge from the oven doors, or at least within several hours. But I’m sure that won’t be too difficult. P.S. Merry Christmas, everyone.

Pretzel Rolls Courtesy of Smitten Kitchen, adapted from Bon Appetit, January 1994

2 3/4 cups bread flour 1 envelope quick-rising yeast (or 2 1/4 tsp active dry yeast, which increases the initial rising time to nearly an hour) 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon sugar 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (about) hot water (125°F to 130°F) Cornmeal 8 cups water 1/4 cup baking soda 2 tablespoons sugar 1 egg white, beaten to blend (glaze) Coarse salt

Combine bread flour, one envelope (2 1/4 tsp) yeast, one teaspoon salt and one teaspoon sugar in food processor and blend. With machine running, gradually pour hot water through feed tube, adding enough water to form smooth elastic dough. Process one minute to knead. Grease medium bowl. Add dough to bowl, turning to coat. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then towel; let dough rise in warm draft-free area until doubled in volume, about 35 minutes (or, with active dry yeast, closer to an hour).

Flour baking sheet, or clear area of counter. Punch dough down and knead on lightly floured surface until smooth. Divide into 8 pieces. Form each dough piece into ball. Place dough balls on prepared surface, flattening each slightly. Using serrated knife, cut X in top center of each dough ball. Cover with towel and let dough balls rise until almost doubled in volume, about 20 minutes (in this time, I suggest prepping the water bath and preheating the oven so the rolls don’t rise too much… maybe this is common sense, but I have to remind myself sometimes).

Preheat oven to 375°F. Grease another baking sheet and sprinkle with cornmeal. Bring 8 cups water to boil in large saucepan. Add baking soda and 2 tablespoons sugar (water will foam up). Add 4 rolls and cook 30 seconds per side. Using slotted spoon, transfer rolls to prepared sheet, arranging X side up. Repeat with remaining rolls.

Brush rolls with egg white glaze. Sprinkle rolls generously with coarse salt. Bake rolls until brown, about 25 minutes. Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes. Serve rolls warm or room temperature.

Round Ten — Holiday Panettone

Holiday Panettone

In case you live in a bubble and/or somewhere warm like Hawaii or Florida or California (and, in which case, of whom I am green with envy), it is snowing. Yes, those tiny white flakes are falling from the sky and landing in a puffy blanket of similar friends who are all congregating in a slushy mass in an effort to A) make people drive like idiots or B) make people drive like geriatrics (also potentially idiots). I, however, drive perfectly, but that’s another story. I don’t hate the snow, especially in the season of glad tidings and making merry. It provides a picturesque landscape, a glittering backdrop for a tree twinkling with lights, silvery tinsel and spherical gems doming over bows and wrapping paper. With such a jolly spirit, it’s hard to do anything not festive at this time of year.

I chose this recipe because my husband, Elliott, drools over panettone almost every Christmas. He painstakingly compares every store’s version of the loaf until he finds the “perfect” one — a sweet tower of bread studded with ornaments of candied, dried fruits. So when I happened upon a recipe for it in my Food Network Magazine, I thought I’d try to make a panettone that blew away all the other versions. How silly of me. The recipe, though seemingly simple, turned out to be a miniature holiday meltdown. First, it was the candied orange peel — I couldn’t find it anywhere. So I substituted dried pineapple for the MIA fruit. Then, while preparing the bread, I noticed a void in the cabinet which honey — honey that I needed for the recipe — usually fills. I also forgot to buy a lemon for the necessary lemon zest, so I had to stop midway through the recipe to buy the missing products. Of course, upon return, I realized I should have bought several lemons for the required 2 tablespoons of zest, and I almost pulled a muscle grating the single lemon until it was completely bare. I managed only to get about a teaspoon, so I used lemon juice for the remaining five teaspoons needed. Whew. Everything was back on track. Until… until the mixture didn’t rise. It struggled, and puffed up just a hair, and was then defeated. After waiting two and half hours as opposed to the intended hour, I gave up and put the un-risen dough in the loaf pans, and crossed my fingers it would rise for the first time, the second time. It didn’t. After giving up again, I put the pans in the oven and baked them for 50 minutes, when they came out a little overdone. It was a disappointment.

Though the process was less than a success, the taste of the bread is light, citrusy and delicious. And my husband approves.

Debrief: I’m honestly not sure what went wrong with this recipe. It seems my active dry yeast, which is very fresh, just didn’t work. Perhaps it was due to all of the substitutions I made, but none of them logically contribute to the dough not rising. Hmph.

Holiday Panettone courtesy of Food Network Magazine

Makes two loaves

Ingredients: 1/3 cup diced candied orange peel (or dried pineapple, which I used and works just as well, though the taste may differ) 3/4 cup dried cherries 3/4 cup golden raisins 3/4 cup diced dried apricots 1/2 cup sugar 1 tbsp active dry yeast 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour 1 1/4 tsp salt 1 cup whole milk (I used skim, for convenience) 1 stick butter 1/4 cup honey 2 tbsp grated lemon zest (or lemon juice?) 2 eggs 1 tsp vanilla extract

Mix together candied orange peel, dried cherries, golden raisins and dried apricots in a large bowl. Add sugar, active dry yeast, flour and salt. Heat whole milk, butter, honey and grated lemon zest to 120 degrees in a saucepan; stir into the mix. Mix in 2 lightly beaten eggs and vanilla extract; cover and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Butter two 5-by-9-inch loaf pans or two empty 10-ounce coffee cans and line with parchment paper. Add the dough; cover and let rise 1 hour. Bake at 350 degrees until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 55 minutes (or, in my case, about 45 minutes). Cool before slicing.

Extra punches (from Food Network Magazine): For a nut lover, add 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts in place of some of the dried fruit.

Round Nine — Quick Bran Date Bread

It is Thanksgiving. I won’t exhaust you with all the details of for what I am thankful, but I am indeed thankful for a lot of things this year. Including my husband, for whom I am most thankful, in part for his excellent photography (he painstakingly took and edited almost all these pictures for me).

Another thing I am thankful for is quick breads. I know it may be cheating in the spectrum of bread baking, as most quick breads require nothing more than a mixture to be placed in a tin and baked. It is just that — quick. And though part of me misses the process of letting dough rise, kneading it, letting it rise again, shaping it, letting it rise again… sigh… sometimes it’s just nicer to not have to do all that work. I’m also thankful that we randomly had a plethora of dates in our house, inspiring me to bake a bread featuring dates as the star player. It didn’t sound too appetizing at first, what with bran and mushy dates and nutmeats (?) — and to be honest, never looked too much better while preparing the bread — but once it emerged from the oven, the kitchen was enveloped with an aroma of warm, hearty, sweet date-y goodness. And the taste was even better.

And so I was thankful for the fact that I used the random dates well, that the bread was simple to make and required few ingredients (though some odd, including dates and bran and… once again, nutmeats?) and that I was able to share it with my family, of which I am also thankful. And I am thankful that I also get to share this recipe with you, and though you may initially shy away from it and its apparent unattractiveness, I dare you to pick up some dates and give it a try.

But, like I said, I won’t bore you with everything for which I am thankful. But thanks for reading this. Debrief: Not much to change. This was one of the simplest breads I’ve ever made. Just mix the ingredients, stick in the oven, and voila. Yum.

Quick Bran Date Bread courtesy of The Joy of Cooking

Makes two 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch loaves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare: 2 cups chopped dates Pour over them: 2 cups boiling water In a separate bowl, beat until light: 2 eggs Add slowly, beating constantly: 3/4 cup brown sugar or 1/2 cup molasses (I used brown sugar) When these ingredients are creamy, add: 1 cup whole-grain flour (I used whole wheat… is there much of a difference?) 2 tsp double-acting baking powder 1 tsp baking soda Add half the date mixture and: 1 cup whole-grain flour (or whole wheat) 2 cups bran 1 tsp vanilla Add the remaining date mixture and: 1 cup or less chopped nutmeats (I used chopped pecans and came to find this was close enough) Place the dough in lightly greased loaf pans. Bake for about 1 hour.

Round Eight — Chocolate Chocolate Chip Bread

Chocolate Chocolate Chip Bread

I have a confession to make.

Though I truly, deeply love to bake bread and delight in all its complexities, idiosyncrasies, successes and catastrophes, I must admit it is not my first love. You see, I have an indelible sweet tooth. This is no ordinary sweet tooth — oh, no. I am perplexed when I pick up a Glamour or Self Magazine and read their articles titled, “Eat What You Want And STILL Lose Weight!”, only to find that their suggestions span only as far as, “When vexed with a desire for chocolate, have one Dark Chocolate Hershey’s Kiss to diminish the craving.” This advice, however, does not subdue my monstrous sweet tooth. Once I ingest the drop of chocolate, my sweet tooth rears its ugly head and, in full force, demands several more larger portions in order to be satisfied. So when I decided to take on bread baking — a venue that often avoids recipes with heaps of sugar — it was an attempt to find a hobby that perhaps would force my sweet tooth into submission forevermore.

Then I found this recipe. With loaves like these, I will never have the courage to beat down my sweet tooth monster.

I needed to make this recipe for two reasons: one, I’ve been dying to make a dessert bread and, two, I had one of those won’t-take-no-for-an-answer kind of chocolate cravings the other day. And so, with the help of my lovely new book, The Bread Bible, I created chocolate chocolate chip bread. Yes, that’s chocolate times deux.

Round Seven — Deli-Style Rye

Deli-Style Rye

Sigh. It is officially fall.

Every day (almost), I get up and go to work and brew coffee/slice tomatoes/make garlic bread/say to customers, “Have a nice day; please take your number; would you like your receipt?”, and then I leave work and am often tired and slightly cranky, and I see the school bus-yellow, fire hydrant-red and pumpkin-orange leaves holding on for dear life to their brittle branches, shaking fiercely in the icy wind and I am suddenly warm and cozy inside, the way I feel just after imbibing a nice, hot cup of spiced apple cider from my favorite red Target mug.

Yes, I know it’s been fall for a while, but I’d been too busy to notice (yes, I am guilty of ignorance) until one day, all of a sudden, I (gasp!) noticed it all around me. It was almost too late — some of the trees were already bare, sloughing off the weight of dying leaves and strengthening their naked bones for what I hear will be a harsh winter. But I did notice, and though I tend to shy away from cool weather (or anything but summer), it currently reminds me of holidays and snowflakes and pumpkin pie, and I am immediately swooned.

This recipe, however, is in no such spirit. Don’t get me wrong, this bread is divine, but it was, thus far, the most difficult recipe to prepare. Don’t let the outward appearances of simplicity fool you — this is a tricky little bread, disguised by fancy terms like “artisan” and “deli-style.” It is my moral duty to forewarn you that, for any amateur baker like me, it is not the easiest of loaves to create.

The inclusion of ingredients was nothing too shocking, but the actual preparation of the loaves (this recipe makes four 1-pound loaves) — the sticky, shapeless loaves — was a tad stressful. It was a tiresome battle pulling grapefruit-sized handfuls from the main dough, pulling apart the gluey strands and rolling the balls into ovals, all the while yanking the tack from my hands while trying to maintain the oval shape for its cornmeal-covered destination. This resulted in four balls of all different shapes and sizes — anything but “grapefruit-sized” and “oval.”

There was also the steaming technique in the oven, which is something I’ve never had to do before but had heard was beneficial to preventing the drying-out of baking bread. Under usual circumstances, placing a cup of hot water in a pan in the oven is no big deal. Add in the need to transfer sticky loaves from a surface covered in pebbles of cornmeal to a piping-hot baking stone, however (especially when you don’t have a fancy-schmancy pizza peel like they want you to have in the recipe. Pshaw), and you have a MESS.

The bread only took about 20 minutes per two loaves to bake, but they all finished in different shapes and sizes. But don’t judge a book by its cover — the smell of baked caraway seeds and the taste of fresh rye was enough to make it worth the effort. Though I may not exhaust my effort on this one again.

Debrief: Obviously, as noted above, this was one tough cookie — er, bread — of a recipe. But again, I know not much about baking bread, so for others this may be a walk in the park, and I am glad I experienced the art of artisan bread baking and do not plan to avoid it in the future. Next time, I may bake this bread in loaf tins to give the rye a more useful shape, and to avoid the whole pizza peel thing. Deli-Style Rye courtesy of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

Makes four 1-pound loaves. The recipe is easily doubled or halved.

3 cups lukewarm water 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated yeast (1 1/2 packets) 1 1/2 tablespoons salt 1 1/2 tablespoons caraway seeds, plus more for sprinkling on the top 1 cup rye flour 5 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour Cornmeal for pizza peel (or, as I used, cutting board) Cornstarch wash (Blend 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch with a small amount of water to form a paste; add 1/2 cup water and whisk with a fork; microwave mixture until it appears glassy, about 30 to 60 seconds on high)

1. Mixing and storing the dough: Mix the yeast, salt, and caraway seeds with the water in a 5-quart bowl, or a lidded (not airtight) food container.

2. Mix in the remaining dry ingredients without kneading, using a spoon, a 14-cup capacity food processor (with dough attachment), or a heavy-duty stand mixer (with dough hook) (what I used). If you’re not using a machine, you may need to use wet hands to incorporate the last bit of flour.

3. Cover (not airtight), and allow to rest at room temperature until the dough rises and collapses (or flattens on top), approximately 2 hours.

4. The dough can be used immediately after the initial rise, though it is easier to handle when cold. Refrigerate in a lidded (not airtight) container and use over the next 14 days.

5. On baking day, dust the surface of the refrigerated dough with flour and cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-sized) piece. Dust the piece with more flour and quickly shape it into a ball by stretching the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go. Elongate the ball into an oval-shaped loaf. Allow to rest and rise on a cornmeal-covered pizza peel for 40 minutes.

6. Twenty minutes before baking time, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F, with a baking stone placed on the middle rack. Place an empty broiler tray on any other shelf that won’t interfere with the rising bread.

7. Using a pastry brush, paint the top crust with cornstarch wash and then sprinkle with additional caraway seeds. Slash with deep parallel cuts across the loaf, using a serrated bread knife.

8. Slide the loaf directly onto the hot stone. Pour 1 cup of hot tap water into the broiler tray, and quickly close the oven door. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until deeply browned and firm. Smaller or larger loaves will require adjustments in baking time.

9. Allow to cool before slicing or eating.

Extra punches: For caraway seed-lovers, an alternative: Caraway Swirl Rye. Follow above recipe as stated, but add 2 tablespoons of caraway seeds. When rolling the grapefruit-sized dough into a ball, use your hands and a rolling pin to flatten the ball into a 1/2-inch-thick oval (avoid using extra flour here or it might remain as a dry deposit in the caraway swirl). Sprinkle the dough with caraway seeds. The amount can vary with your taste; save some for the top crust. Then roll up the dough from the short end like a jelly roll, forming a cylindrical loaf. Pinch the ends closed. Continue following above recipe as stated.

Round Six — Challah Crowns

Challah Crowns

I’m looking at a palm tree outside the window right now. Palm tree in Illinois, you ask? No, no. I am in Florida visiting my in-laws with Elliott, basking in the Southern sun (perhaps a little too much — my face is rather lobster-ish in color) and taking a respite from the hustle and bustle of regular life.

And what a week of hustle and bustle it was. Working, packing for vacation and spending 48 hours in the role of “bridesmaid” for my dear friend Kathy’s wedding left me with little time to write about, let alone bake, any bread in the past eleven days. But somehow I managed to squeeze in some one-on-one time with a recipe so delicious, it’ll leave you with sweet-smelling memories that will tantalize your nostrils for hours even after you’ve devoured the bread.

This time, I crossed over the threshold of egg breads and plunged into the depths of a challah crowns recipe reminiscent of the Jewish tradition generally reserved for high holidays, including Rosh Hashana. Though I am no Jew, there was something sacred about the wafted smell of the loaf as it baked in the oven, somewhat similar to incense or the sweet smoke diffused by a censer at a Catholic mass (ironic comparison, I know).

The loaves (this recipe makes two crowns) were fairly simple to assemble, though it can get a little confusing when encountering the constant additions of multiple ingredients (i.e., add a whole egg… add two egg yolks… a dash of sugar here, a pinch of salt there, etc. etc.). All seemed to go according to plan until the dough refused to double in size. Though it rose a little bit each time, overall the dough never grew past half of its original bulk, thus leaving the final product perhaps a tad smaller than intended. The taste of this bread was so delectable, it was almost dessert-like. Fluffy but dense, sweet and yet slightly comparable to potato bread, these crowning achievements brought me to another world where I half-expected my father to return from the fields after a hard day’s work and plop down into a seat at the head of the table, ready to give a prayer into the swirls of Challah-sweetened air before the commencement of the family’s Sabbath meal.

Though I don’t celebrate the Sabbath, this past week was filled with enough celebration to give me the excuse to bake the sacred bread. My husband and I were blessed with the chance to take a vacation from life’s usual hecticness, and one of my best friends whom I’ve known for 17 years just got married to a wonderful person. A high holiday, indeed.

Debrief: Next time I bake these crowns, I will steer clear of the wax paper I used in place of parchment paper. There is a difference. I know, because when using wax paper the kitchen became so smoky that we had to open all the windows and doors to avoid setting off the smoke alarm. Also, though the crowns themselves baked perfectly, the bottoms were completely black and I had to shave off the inedible bases.

Challah Crowns courtesy of Food Network Kitchens

Ingredients: 4 cups all-purpose flour (1 pound, 1 3/8 ounces), plus up to 3/4 cup (3 1/2 ounces) more for kneading 2 tablespoons sugar (7/8 ounce) 2 1/4 teaspoons rapid rise yeast (1/4 ounce package) (I used active dry yeast; could have been why my dough didn’t rise so well?) 1 cup warm water, about 110 degrees F 1/3 cup honey 2 whole large eggs 3 large egg yolks 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil 1 tablespoon kosher salt 1 tablespoon poppy seeds (optional) (I didn’t use these due to personal preference)

Directions: Whisk the flour, sugar, and yeast together in a large bowl and make a well in the center.

Whisk the water and honey with 1 whole egg, all the yolks, olive oil, and salt in a small bowl and pour into the well. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients with a wooden spoon to make a soft, shaggy, moist dough. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface and knead by hand, adding up to 3/4 cup more flour as needed, until the dough is soft and supple, about 8 minutes. Shape the dough into a ball.

Brush a large bowl with oil and turn dough around in bowl to coat lightly. Cover bowl with a clean kitchen towel and set aside until dough doubles in size, about 1 hour. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface; knead briefly to release excess air, re-shape into a ball and return to the bowl. Cover and set aside until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Line 2 baking sheet pans with parchment paper (parchment! PARCHMENT!). Divide the dough in half. Lightly dust hands with flour and roll each portion of dough into a 30-inch-long log. (If dough resists, then cover and let rest for 5 or 10 minutes before shaping). Spiral each length of dough around itself to form a coiled round loaf on the prepared pans. Lightly stretch the end of the coil and moisten it with water; gently press the end into the side of the round to seal the coil into a loaf. Press down on the loaves gently, cover with a kitchen towel and set aside until doubled, about 1 hour.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 450 degrees F. Beat the remaining egg with a tablespoon of water and brush loaves evenly with it; sprinkle with poppy seeds if desired. Put the loaves in the oven and immediately turn the oven down to 400 degrees, and bake until golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the crown registers 190 degrees F, about 30 to 35 minutes.