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Posts Tagged ‘bread’

The calendar may say Spring, but both the weather (snow in April!) and the fresh produce in markets still keep sullenly saying Winter. How I yearn for good hot-weather vegetables – especially those that can be made into antipasti for everyday dinners: ripe tomatoes! peppers and zucchini and eggplants from local farms! But they won’t be here for many weeks yet. Casting about for something to tempt our palates, I came upon a recipe in La Tavola Italiana, my own first cookbook, for a tortino di mozzarella; a recipe that I hadn’t made in a few years. Why not now?

In English, “torte” usually means an elaborate layered cake, but in Italy a torta can be a sweet or savory pastry. The diminutive tortino suggests a short-cut version of the breed. This mozzarella torte is a simple baked bread-and-cheese affair, but it really sings if you use excellent fresh mozzarella and good firm bread. Usually I make it with Italian-style bread (as long as the slices aren’t too full of air holes), but I’d just baked a batch of my favorite Joy of Cooking White Bread Plus, so I decided to try that for a change. I also had a large ball of buffalo mozzarella in the refrigerator, which is always a treat.
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The other ingredients are egg yolk, milk, anchovy fillets, fennel seeds, and grated parmigiano – all things I typically have on hand. Here’s the prep work for two portions:

  • Trimming the crusts off four slices of bread and laying them snugly in a buttered baking dish
  • Pureeing four chopped anchovy filets, an egg yolk, and ¼ cup of milk in my mini-food processor
  • Cutting four thick slices of mozzarella
  • Measuring out ½ teaspoon of fennel seeds and 1½ tablespoons of grated parmigiano.
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As dinner time approached, I finished making up the tortino while the oven preheated. The first step was to spoon the egg-milk-anchovy sauce over the bread, letting it absorb all the liquid. Then, to top each slice of bread with a slice of mozzarella. Finally, sprinkle on the fennel seeds and the grated cheese.  No intricacies: a very straightforward procedure.
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The dish went into a 400° oven for 20 minutes, until the cheese was bubbling and just starting to brown on top. Then it had to sit for 5 minutes before serving, so the molten cheese wouldn’t scald our mouths.
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The look and smell of the tortino were very appetizing (which was the point, of course). It tasted rather like a good mozzarella in carrozza but with additional flavor fillips from the fennel seeds and anchovy. A very satisfying cold-weather antipasto that I’ve been ignoring for too long; must make it again soon!

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If at first you don’t succeed . . . you may not do much better the second time, either! That was my fate when following a recipe for coffee panettone sent to me by my friend Jennifer with a note saying “I have made this – delicious.” With the Christmas season already thundering down on us like a runaway herd of reindeer, I thought it would be interesting to give it a try.

It was clear from the first that “panettone” was purely a courtesy title for this confection. True panettone is rich in butter and eggs; this recipe uses no eggs and only a dollop of vegetable shortening. It doesn’t even call for kneading the dough; just mixing it. It also must be quite an old recipe, because it calls for “seedless” raisins. How long has it been since that had to be specified?!  Nonetheless, I figured that, even if this was only a sweet tea bread, it could be good. I was feeling experimental, and this is the season for fruit-and-nut breads.

So I made a batch. I began by chopping walnuts and candied orange peel – proper seasonal ingredients – to accompany the raisins.
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For the dough I first had to dissolve yeast in warm water and a cup of “strong warm coffee”; add soft shortening, salt, sugar, and baking soda; and stir in enough flour to make a batter. I confess to using melted butter for the shortening and very strong instant espresso for the coffee.
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Then the remaining flour went in, along with the fruits, nuts, and vanilla extract. Even though the recipe didn’t say to, I kneaded it for a few minutes. It made a very sticky dough, which was reluctant to rise. After three hours it still wasn’t doubled in bulk, but I moved on anyway and transferred it to two bread pans. (The recipe preferred to form the traditional panettone shape in cylindrical coffee cans, but I didn’t have any.)
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After another two hours, when the loaves had grudgingly risen as much as they evidently intended to, I baked them at 350° for 40 minutes. The dratted things didn’t rise any more in the oven either – in fact, they sank somewhat. That made for heavy, dense, chewy bread.

Though it was fairly ugly, it didn’t taste too bad: sort of like a panforte or a not-very-sweet fruitcake. Lightly toasted and slathered with butter, I thought it was edible. Beloved Spouse, my personal Grinch, did not.
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Now, as it happened, Jennifer – the donator of the recipe – came for a visit a few days later. I hauled out one of my bricks of panettone and showed it to her. “Did yours come out like this?” “No, it didn’t.” I gave her a taste. She said kind things. I gnashed my teeth.

Obviously, I’d done something wrong. I thought it most likely that the coffee had been too hot, and maybe too strong, so it killed or crippled the yeast. I’d give it another try.

I went through the whole procedure again, making a half recipe. This time my espresso was freshly brewed, not unusually strong, and only just warm. I used Crisco, not butter, and did no actual kneading, only vigorous mixing. The dough looked and felt better than the first batch, and it rose much more in the bowl, even though it still took nearly three hours to get there.
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It rose better in the pan too, so I was hopeful. But wouldn’t you know it, the same thing happened in the oven – it sank again! This time I have no idea why. This loaf looked more respectable than the first ones, at least: It was a whole two inches high, instead of only one inch.
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Also, it was lighter in weight, softer in texture, and altogether more pleasant tasting. I, at least, thought so. Beloved Spouse was not persuaded.
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More attractive, yes, but it still isn’t what it should be, and it definitely isn’t panettone. Will I try a third time? I doubt it. If I want a panettone for Christmas, I’ll buy a good one.

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Napoleon Bonaparte apparently had very little time for, or interest in, what he ate. Brillat-Savarin said of him “his household was organized in such a way that no matter where he was or what the hour of the day he had but to speak one word in order to be presented with a chicken, cutlets, and coffee.”

Out of that predilection grew the chicken dish named for Bonaparte’s famous victory at the battle of Marengo on June 14, 1800. As Robert Courtine recounts the story in his fascinating historical cookbook The Hundred Glories of French Cooking, the general’s cooking wagon had gotten lost, and his chef, Durand, had nothing in his own carriage but a drum of oil and a flask of brandy. Durand sent soldiers out to scavenge in the countryside, and they returned with a few chickens, eggs, tomatoes, and garlic. Then:

In the twinkling of an eye the birds are plucked. They are cut up with a saber and set to brown in some oil while the garlic is being crushed between two stones and the tomatoes thrown into the frying pan without even being peeled. A spurt of brandy flavors the sauce. And the victorious general is served as befits a leader … [the dish] attended by a ring of fried eggs and full military honors.

If that legend is true, the combination was a great serendipity.

Courtine’s recipe is the version of Poulet Marengo I like best, and happily it doesn’t insist on either the saber or the stones. Normally I do cut up a whole chicken for it, but this time for a casual supper for three, I used just three chicken legs – thighs and drumsticks. I salted, peppered, floured, and browned them in garlicky olive oil. (Courtine wants the garlic crushed and stirred in raw at the end of the cooking, but we prefer our garlic a bit tamer than that.)
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Next I flamed them with a generous dose of brandy. It would’ve made a lovely campfire!
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As soon as the flames died I added cut-up tomatoes (peeled, I confess), along with a few more “inauthentic” ingredients called for by Courtine: white wine, salt, pepper, bay leaf, thyme, and parsley. This all simmered, covered, for 40 minutes.
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Meanwhile, I prepared another item added by Courtine’s recipe: slices of bread fried in olive oil. (Possibly Durand commandeered bread for Napoleon from the soldiers’ rations?)
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At the last minute I fried the eggs, set them on the fried bread slices, and placed them around the serving dish with the chicken and its sauce. Et voilà, poulet Marengo!
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It really is an excellent dish. The sharpness of the sauce, from the wine and brandy, contrasts beautifully with the lushness of the fried eggs and bread. The chicken just sits there enjoying it all – as we three diners did.

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I always thought of shrimp sandwiches as using cold, mayonnaise-based shrimp salad. Now I’ve discovered a different kind of shrimp sandwich – warm, spicy, saucy, and good! The recipe, from Richard Sandoval’s New Latin Flavors, is called Tortas con Camarones al Ajillo, or Garlic Shrimp Tortas. One further reason I liked it was that most of the ingredients are things I keep in the kitchen or can get easily, so no special shopping was required.

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I did change a few things when I made the recipe. First, it calls for just “crusty rolls,” which could be anything: French, kaiser, ciabatta, etc. I wanted to have true Mexican torta rolls. Online research told me there are two varieties, called telera and bolillo, which seem to be identical except for the way the tops are slashed. I found a nice recipe for them on the King Arthur Flour website and baked a small batch, using the easier bolillo slash.

 

The next day I was ready to make the tortas for lunch. For two sandwiches, the recipe calls for ¾ pound of shrimp. That sounded like too much for the size of my rolls, so I used only ½ pound. I peeled them, sprinkled on salt and pepper, and let them sit while I started their sauce. (Cook’s confession: I never bother to devein shrimp unless the veins are grossly unsightly.)

I persuaded Beloved Spouse to stem, seed, and cut up two small dried de árbol chiles, a variety I like very much, while I sliced two cloves of garlic very thin. These went into a large pan along with olive oil and a bay leaf, and sauteed until the garlic began to brown.

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I added the shrimp and cooked very briefly, until they just turned opaque . . .
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. . . and removed them from the pan. Into it I poured in ¾ cup of white wine and 1½ tablespoons of lemon juice and cooked until the liquid had reduced by half. Off heat, I put the shrimp back in and left them there to soak up flavors while I prepared the rest of the ingredients.

The tortas were to receive a garnish of tomato slices and a heap of baby arugula. For several days previously I’d had some halfway-flavorful Mexican tomatoes – winter’s best option – and a big plastic box of wild arugula, both of which I’d been using. Alas, when I reopened the box this time, the arugula had gone slimy. I had to substitute shredded Boston lettuce – a much milder green.

While two split bolillos were toasting lightly, I reheated the shrimp, taking out the pieces of chile and the bay leaf, stirring in a teaspoon of chopped parsley and the grated zest of half a lemon, and dissolving two tablespoons of thinly sliced butter into the sauce for a final enrichment.

At last I could put together the tortas. The bottom half of a roll on a plate; the shrimp heaped on, the sauce poured over, plus tomato slices, lettuce, and the top half of the roll.

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Though a little messy to eat, the tortas were scrumptious. There was an almost symphonic interplay of flavors and textures – nutty sweetness of shrimp, subtle scent of garlic, spicy heat of chiles, bright acidity of wine and lemon, richness of butter, softness of tomato, and crispness of lettuce, all contained by a very tasty roll. I only regret having lost the arugula – it would have made another tangy element. Next time, for sure!

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A place in my neighborhood, billed as the only 100% Paleo restaurant in the city, puts a chalkboard on the sidewalk listing daily specials. I love to walk by and envision a Neanderthal family sitting in their cave breakfasting on something like No-Yo Matcha Parfait: coconut milk, maple syrup, taro root, almond butter, matcha, banana, and grain-free granola. Where in the world could a group of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers have collected that combination of foodstuffs?!

Such absurdities make it impossible for me to take the Paleo diet seriously. While I’m quite happy to eat meat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, there’s no way I’d give up all dairy products, grains, bread, pasta, sugar, salt, and coffee. (Not to mention wine.) But leaving aside the pros, cons, and controversies of the Paleo approach, it can be fun on occasion to eat something “primordial” – and there’s nothing more primordial than roasted marrow bones.

Here’s the batch that we had one recent evening:

raw-bones

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They’re perfectly easy to prepare: Place the bones in a roasting pan with the wider side of the marrow openings up. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Put the pan in a 450° oven until the marrow softens and begins to ooze out – about 15 minutes. Serve. Except for the salt and pepper, any Paleolithic cook could have done it.

roasted-bones

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It’s hard to overstate how elementally satisfying the succulence of marrow is at the end of a grey, cold, winter day. However, I destroyed the Paleo purity of the dish by having a loaf of crusty ciabatta bread as its accompaniment.

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There’s nothing roasted marrow likes better than to be scooped out and spread on a slice of warm toast, there to be blissfully devoured.
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And one more post-Paleolithic touch: Marrow loves a good, soft, round red wine. So do I.

bone-tower

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Breakfast Brioches

Around here, everyday breakfast is usually two cups of espresso and something in the bread family: an English muffin, a bagel, a homemade muffin or scone; if nothing else, white toast. Very occasionally, we have croissants or brioches. I buy the croissants, because I’m not good at making them, but I can make good brioches.

When the urge to do so overcame me recently, I dug out my individual brioche tins and started looking through cookbooks. There are some big differences in technique claytonbetween brioche recipes, though none of them is simple. Julia Child’s in Mastering is – predictably – the most complicated, with a six-page master recipe and five pages of shaping variations. Even Irma Rombauer, always a model of conciseness, devotes a whole densely written page of Joy to brioche making. This time I chose to use Bernard Clayton’s basic French Brioche recipe in The Complete Book of Breads, which runs to only four pages.
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Brioche dough – really more like a very thick batter – never gets kneaded, only beaten. To start, I dissolved yeast in water; added a small amount of flour, plus nonfat dry milk, sugar, and salt; and beat that in the heavy-duty mixer for two minutes. Next I added a lot of soft butter and beat that in for one minute. Finally, I beat in eggs and the rest of the flour. Here are those three stages of the batter.
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three-batters

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Then came the tricky part. I quote you the recipe’s instructions:

Grab the dough in one hand . . . pull a large handful of it out of the bowl, about 14 inches aloft, and throw it back – with considerable force! Continue pulling out and slapping back the dough for about 18 to 20 minutes. Don’t despair. It is sticky. It is a mess but it will slowly begin to stretch and pull away as you work it.
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A heavy-duty mixer, at medium speed, can do this in about 10 minutes.

This time I thought I’d give the hand system a try.
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It was kind of fun at the beginning – good for working out aggressions – but very soon I gratefully turned the job over to the mixer. After 10 minutes of powerful slapping around, the dough had smoothed out nicely and showed a distinct preference to stick to itself rather than anything else it touched.

The dough then had to rise in a warm place (80-85° recommended) until doubled in bulk. My kithen is nowhere near that temperature, so I put the bowl in a slightly warmed oven. When I checked on it after two hours it had risen tremendously and looked energetic enough to go even higher.
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unrisen-and-risen

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I didn’t let it, though. I gently coaxed it down, covered its bowl tightly, and put it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next morning it hadn’t risen nearly as much as the first time, which worried me a little, but it had to be shaped while it was still very cold, so I went ahead. It behaved beautifully. This was a completely different animal from yesterday’s sticky mess. I was able to shape it into balls and topknots without using a speck of flour.

shaped

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Then they had to rise again, covered, but in such a way that the covering wouldn’t touch the rising dough. Using a lot of glasses and plastic wrap, I built them a sort of greenhouse:

greenhouse

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This time I didn’t let them rise in as warm a place as for the dough’s initial rise, because I’d read somewhere that too high a temperature could cause the butter to start seeping out. As a result, my shaped rolls took 3½ hours to barely double in bulk. Several of the topknots had slipped sideways as they rose (they always do, for me), but as I applied egg glaze to them just before baking, I was able with a careful brush to nudge them back toward the middle.
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final-rise

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My brioches were a little bigger than the recipe anticipates (I have only 8 tins, not 10), so they took more than the indicated 20 minutes to bake. They seemed almost done at 30 minutes, but I kept them in for 10 more, for better browning. In the final oven rising, the topknots slipped sideways again, but not too badly.
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baked

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And so on to the next day’s breakfast – where the brioches were excellent. They had the proper fine, dense crumb and a luscious butter-and-egg richness.

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Are they worth all the trouble? To us, yes: Fresh brioche spread with homemade strawberry jam, alongside a good espresso – that’s a great way to start your day.

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Science has shown that you can make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Sometimes kitchen arts can do that too. It worked, this week, for me.

Beloved Spouse had innocently brought home a new variety of bread to try – a large baguette-style loaf listed by our usually reliable market as Italian Bread. It looked reasonable, though it felt a bit hefty. When sliced into, it proved to be essentially commercial white bread: The dense, fine, slightly sweet crumb had to have been due to more ingredients than the flour, yeast, and salt that a proper Italian loaf uses.

loaf

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When we want white bread in our house I make the White Bread Plus recipe from Joy of Cooking, and it’s a very different animal. So this travesty was going to be useless unless I found something decent to do with it. Resourcefully (she modestly said), I did: Bread pudding.

From a few unfortunate restaurant experiences, I know it’s possible to produce a boring bread pudding, but all the ones I’ve ever made are wonderful simple desserts – easy enough for everyday use, interesting enough to serve to guests. So I set to work on this one, using only ingredients that I had on hand.

My bespoke knife man (a big bread pudding fan) cheerfully reduced the loaf of bread to cubes. It made almost six cups’ worth.

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The next thing I needed was two cups of milk. I didn’t have any fresh, so I made up some with nonfat dry milk powder, boosting its butterfat with a leftover half cup of heavy cream. I scalded that liquid, melted in half a stick of butter, stirred in ⅓ cup of sugar, poured it over the bread, and left it for 15 minutes to be absorbed.

Then I considered fruit for the filling. My fruit bowl contained several bananas, a pear, and an apple. Any of them would have been good. I chose the apple, peeled and chopped it, and added ¼ cup of raisins to it.

fruit

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When the bread was thoroughly moistened, I mixed in the fruit, along with two eggs beaten with a teaspoon of vanilla extract and a pinch of salt.

mixture

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The pudding mixture went into a heavily buttered baking dish and then into a 350° oven for about 45 minutes, until the top was lightly browned and a knife inserted into the center came out clean.

baked

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It was a delight, as always – warm and fragrant, lightly fruit-sweet, moist enough not to need a sauce (though it never objects to a ladleful of crème anglaise). Of course, there was far more than two of us could eat at a sitting, but one of the beauties of bread pudding is its resilience. It keeps well, reheats well – even freezes well, though mine rarely lasts long enough for that.

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Best of all, in any of its homely or elegant variations, bread pudding is a thoroughly comforting thing to eat. And given the way things have gone this fall, we all need as much comfort as we can get. Beloved Spouse and I may eat a lot of bread pudding this winter.

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