Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Big, Bad Biscuits

That clanging noise you hear in the background is my arteries slamming shut after making biscuits not once but twice this weekend. The kids had been bugging me for Nana's butter biscuits, buttery little hunks of deliciousness based on a recipe from my mom's 1956 Betty Crocker cookbook. These are biscuits made without shortening that are then rolled in melted butter and baked. The tops get golden but the bottoms actually fry a little bit in the leftover butter in the baking pan and are so greasily wonderful I could eat a whole pan full myself (hence the aforementioned artery thing). For some reason my offspring like to break them into pieces and dip them into tomato juice for consumption, which I would suggest you try before you dismiss it out of hand. It actually isn't bad.

So that was Saturday. Then Sunday we had our once in a while Southern fat-fest, better known as sausage gravy and biscuits. There weren't enough butter biscuits left over so I had to start all over again with the traditional baking powder version. I love to bake but it isn't often I do two batches in two days! I'm posting both recipes so you can compare and contrast. They are similar but just different enough that you might want to try both.

Butter Biscuits

6 tablespoons butter
2-1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Put the butter into an 8x8 square baking pan and put in the oven until melted.

Mix the remaining ingredients together to make a soft dough.

Turn out onto a floured board and knead lightly then pat out to about 1/2 thickness.

Using a round cutter, cut 12 rounds. Coat the round in the melted butter and arrange in the pan.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until dark golden brown.

Traditional Baking Powder Biscuits

2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Mix the dry ingredients together and, using a cutter or two knives, cut in the butter until the mix resembles cornmeal.

Add the buttermilk to make a soft dough.

Turn out onto a floured board and knead lightly then pat dough out to about 1/2 inch thickness.

Cut with a round biscuit cutter and place on an ungreased cookie sheet or stoneware pan.

Bake for 12-15 minutes until golden brown.

Bread Baking Day #7 - Here We Go!

I'm excited that I've discovered a new web concept called Bread Baking Day! It was developed by another bread obsessed blogger and has been embraced by bakers all over the world. Each BBD is given a theme then anyone who participates bakes, blogs about it and sends their bake info to a central person who compiles the whole lot. I may have some of the specifics a bit muddled up but I intend to participate in the March 1 event.

Okay, it doesn't take much to turn me on. I know this.

The theme for March 1 is flatbreads but excludes pizza so I'd better get cracking on finding something to make. Maybe I'll get with Caroline and see about making the Moroccan flatbread her MIL made when she was here. It was SO good but I didn't get to watch her make it so I might need some education.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Really Delicious Bran Muffins

Quick - let's play the word association game. I say something and you tell me the first thing that comes to your mind. Here's the phrase - bran muffins. So let me guess what you came up with - I'm thinking dry, tasteless, doorstop, heavy. Am I coming close? I know, delicious bran muffins sounds like a complete oxymoron but a couple of years ago I stumbled on a recipe in Greg Patent's Baking in America that has totally changed my mind on the subject. These babies are not just yummy, they are tender, moist and loaded with fruit. I tinkered with the recipe just a bit to add more spice so they are way too good not to try just because of the painful experiences you might have had with bran in the past. Here's the recipe:

1 cup unbleached flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ cup wheat germ
½ cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 cups bran cereal (like All Bran)
1 cup raisins, dried cherries, or dried cranberries
1 large egg
1½ cups buttermilk
¼ cup applesauce or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Grease a 12 cup muffin pan.
2. Stir dry ingredients together in a bowl. Add the dried fruit and toss to combine.
3. In another bowl, beat the egg, then add the buttermilk, oil or applesauce, and vanilla and mix. Add to the dry ingredients and mix well.
4. Let the batter stand for 15 minutes to moisten the cereal. Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees while the batter is standing.
5. Divide the batter into the muffin cups and bake for about 20 minutes.
6. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

My continuing obsession with no-knead bread

No-knead bread, the love of my baking life. I had never heard of the stuff until last year but have been on a mission to make great artisan bread at home for what seemed like my entire existence. I was beginning to think it would never happen in spite of baking stones, 70 year old sourdough starter, and pretty much every cooking and baking accoutrement that I could cram into my house. Then I picked up a Vogue magazine and read the article that changed my life. I know, you think I'm being dramatic (and it wouldn't be the first time I was accused of such) but when I read I could make bread as incredible as something from Sullivan Street Bakery in New York in my home oven, I wanted to drop to my knees right there in my living room and thank the powers of the universe for putting that magazine in my hands that day.
I'll admit it didn't hurt that the article was written by Jeffrey Steingarten, my absolute favorite (and to my mind the most erudite) food writer on the planet today. The irony of a magazine devoted to the emaciated darlings of the fashion world still having a great food writer on staff doesn't escape me but I'm sure glad they do.

The first time I baked this bread I got a loaf that looked like it had come from the ovens of a fabulous artisan bakery like Bread Line in DC or Tom Cat in NY. It was just plain gorgeous and the taste was unbelievable, the crust was chewy and crisp at the same time. I was in heaven and I swear I baked a loaf of bread every day for about two weeks (and I'm the only person in my house who likes bread so I was going through a lot of flour and eating a LOT of bread). Yes, I definitely had a few bombs but the technique is so easy that just a little bit of experience with the dough and I was producing spectacular loaves every time.

So here's the basic recipe plus a ton of notes I've taken over the past year. I'm not baking every day these days but I'm still crazy about this bread and no lie, it looks as good as the pic I've loaded every time I bake it.


3 cups bread flour (I like King Arthur but just about any brand will do; I’ve also used regular unbleached all-purpose flour with great results)
1 teaspoons instant yeast (look for Rapid Rise or bread machine yeast; SAF is great)
2 teaspoons salt (I use Kosher – you might need a bit less if you’re using table salt)
1.5 cups room temp or slightly warmer water
Wheat bran


Parchment paper
Cast iron or ceramic Dutch oven with a tight fitting lid


1. Put the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl and mix together thoroughly.
2. Add the water and mix to get a rough, sticky dough (there may still be some flour clinging to the side of the bowl but most of it should be incorporated)
3. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for about 12-18 hours (can be a few less or a bit more but 24 hours is about the longest you want to let it go)
4. Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a heavily floured board or counter and pat it out slightly 5. Fold the two sides of the dough in like folding a letter, cover with a towel or plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes
6. After 15 minutes, fold the other two sides in to make a sort of square then pull it to make a round loaf. Place the dough on a heavily floured towel that has been sprinkled with wheat bran; sprinkle the top of the loaf with wheat bran and fold the sides of the towel up over the loaf. You may also place the loaf on parchment paper (my preference) which then goes right into the oven when you bake. Cover with a towel to keep the dough from drying out.
7. Let rise for two hours.
8. After one hour of rising, put the Dutch oven with the lid into the oven and turn it on to 500°
9. After the two hour rise, open the oven, pull the lid off the Dutch oven and turn the dough from the towel into the Dutch oven, trying not to let it fall in and completely deflate.
10. Bake for 30 minutes with the lid on then bake for 20-25 minutes with the lid off. Use an instant read thermometer to be sure the interior of the loaf is 205 degrees or above if you have doubts.
11. Cool on a rack for at least two hours. Resist the urge to tear the loaf apart with your bare hands once it is cool enough to not give you third degree burns. You won’t be sorry.

A few notes:

· Go to YouTube and search on no-knead bread. Be sure to watch the video of Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman from the New York Times but when you go to make the bread, use the ingredients listed here rather than the measurements he says. This version tastes and rises much better. Marthastewart.com also has video of Jim on Martha’s tv show but some find her a bit hard to stomach (no culinary pun intended...)

· If you don’t have a Dutch oven, I’ve seen people make this bread using a pizza stone with a flower pot on top or use a number of different types of Pyrex bowls with lids. The real key is to be sure a) whatever you use can stand up to a really hot oven, and b) the lid fits tightly.

· If your dough sticks to the towel when you go to turn it into the Dutch oven, pry it off as much as you can and hope for the best. Next time (and there will be a next time), be sure the towel is very heavily floured (so you can’t see the weave of the cloth) and add more wheat bran. Do not despair as you will probably still get a fantastic loaf of bread.

· As I mentioned above I’ve had pretty good luck rising the dough on parchment paper then just sliding the whole thing, paper and all, into the Dutch oven. The paper gets a bit crispy but doesn’t catch on fire or anything horrible like that. If you’re really concerned, pull the paper out of the Dutch oven when you remove the lid before the second half of the baking period.

· If the bread seems a bit sticky when you cut it, it is underbaked. Add five minutes to the baking time next time you bake and test with an instant read thermometer. If it measures over 205 degrees, you’re good.

· If you don’t get a good rise in the oven or your crust is hard instead of being chewy, your dough is probably too wet. Because the dough is very sticky and may not incorporate all the flour in the bowl, you may be tempted to add a bit more water. Do not do this, just keep mixing (you can use your hands or a wooden spoon) until the dough is mostly pulled together.

· You can add stuff like cheese or raisins if you want. There are MANY recipe variations of this bread available on the web (breadtopia.com is one that I like but just Google no-knead bread and you’ll see how this has caught on in the baking world).

· This recipe makes a BIG loaf. You can easily cut the ingredients in half and get a nice size loaf for a smaller family.

Good luck and report back!

Some of those bread people really scare me...

I'll admit I'm obsessed with baking. I mean, who spends hours on the web, surfing from site to site, drooling over a perfectly blistered golden crust, the insanely buttery cookie, if they're not crazy. If there was such a thing as the smellovision equivalent for computers and even one bread site used it, I'd sign up tomorrow even if it cost a fortune. There are a ton of blogs about food, many about baking in particular, but some of the bread-only people can be scary to the point of making me want to festoon myself with garlic.

I'm not going to name names but when you get a posting thread that goes on for days that debates the merits of one percentage of hydration vs. another, I realize that the denizens of this particular website live on a different plane of reality than mine. These guys are SERIOUS about bread and there is no room for error when calculating percentages of ingredients or discussing grinds of flour (yes, there is the subculture of grinding your own wheat that plays in this too - eek! - but I'm not even going down that road)

Yes, I know there is science to baking and my refusal to pay much attention to that has led to some of my more spectacular failures but really, I mostly like to bake because I like to eat. The serious bread people don't seem to be having much fun with the whole thing and I don't hear a lot of discussion about how good the stuff tastes, which is the point, I thought. At any rate, I get slightly creeped out when bread stops being food and starts being just an experiment. It all seems a bit Soylent Green (I hope I spelled that right - the movie came out a LONG time ago) to me.

Its snowing here in the mountains and the kids are agitating for me to bake cookies. One wants peanut butter, the other chocolate chip so I'm off to wing it and attempt to make something that satisfies them both. As long as nothing explodes it'll be a success as far as I'm concerned.