Thursday, February 26, 2015

Midweek Roundup: Posset Kingdom

Photograph by Peggy (Faithy)
The Amateur Baker

First of all, let me apologize to everyone who was looking forward to a Quick and Easy recipe.  My only complaint about the recipe was that it wasn't quick.  Then several people, who apparently can read better than I can, pointed out that Rose never said the shortcake was quick and easy--just the variation where you make the posset itself without the shortcake.  And even though the posset takes a bit of time to firm up, who can argue with its simplicity:  a mixture of 3 ingredients, which must be some kind of a record for a RLB recipe.  If I led any of you astray by calling the whole shortcake shebang (like you, Lois, who came home from work and started baking at 5-ish, expecting a dessert at 7-ish), I'm sorry. 

Most people liked the shortcake well enough, but honestly, it was the posset itself that, in Tony's words, was the "star of our show."  Or, as Glori said, "this one tops them all."

Monica, who has been on the opposite of a roll lately, called it a "near perfect dessert," and her husband, for whom it was an anniversary present, loved it too.  Faithy also considered it nearly perfect, with its "bit of sweetness and bit of tartness."  In perhaps the most enthusiastic praise of the week, Kim averred that "lemon posset makes you realize how happy you are to be alive."  Maybe we should start thinking of a perfect day as a lemon posset kind of day.

It reminded Alice of oobleck (but in a good way).  Jen said it was "bright and creamy."  Even Kristina, who magnanimously gave her shortcakes away, managed to scrape out a few bites of leftover posset and pronounced it "delicious."

To Orin, it was a "creamy surprise" and "truly delicious"--"you'll wish you'd doubled the recipe." Which some clever people did.

Patricia, for one, who made just the posset--the Lemon Posset Alma variation (the one that really is quick and easy) and called it "lemon heaven."  Mendy also doubled the recipe (he has a large and happy family to feed, you know), and would have added just a "tad more sugar."  In fact, Joan went one step farther and said "it would be more sensible next time to make a triple recipe of these fantasticated cakes." To my knowledge, no one has yet suggested that we quintuple the recipe, but that could happen.

And not only was the posset delicious to eat, there's something about a posset (maybe just the word itself) that makes it seem special.  First, as Catherine says, it's from "Olde Englande."  Why does the simple act of adding e's to words make them seem prehistoric?  Maybe we should call it "possete," and we'd like it even more.

As Katya says, "Posset is fun."  She actually says more than that:  "Posset is fun.  Posset is all of the medieval children's books I used to read.  Posset is nursery sponge and jam and mysterious things people in books eat that I never really knew were things....   Posset posset posset.  Drink your posset. Posset is fun."  On the other hand, Nicola has always thought of posset as "easily digested food for the elderly and infirm," but ended up thinking the posset was "the best yet."

Most people liked the shortcake (although Nancy and Katya refused to call the sponge cake a shortcake) almost as much as the posset itself.  Michele described it as a "perfect marriage of sponge cake filled with creamy tart lemon filling."  For one thing, it has beurre noisette, which Jen described as "more awesome than butter."  And Katya thinks that brown butter makes everything better.  Vicki described the shortcake as an "upscale Twinkie," and I think she meant that as a compliment.  That's how I took it anyway.

 Even those who loved the cake grumbled a bit about the time-consuming steps.  Raymond thought the "cake base [was] just delightful," but added that "all the glazing and waiting and resting really began to try my patience after a while."  Or, as Nicola said, "I was completely overwhelmed by the faff factor."  That girl has a way with words, doesn't she?  Even if I don't know what half of them mean.  I had to look up "faff," and found out that "all life involves a degree of faff," which is somewhat circuitously described as "the amount of faffing around involved in doing something. Going out to the shops.  Having a shower.  Vacuuming.  Whatever."  Apparently making sponge cakes involves more than the average amount of daily faff.

Although Jenn loved the posset (and the lemon buttercream she made to decorate the shortcakes),  she just wasn't a fan of the shortcakes, and Alice thought the final result wasn't worth the effort. Nancy probably summarized this feeling best:  "While I enjoyed the results, I wish for a less involved route to get there."  Nancy, meet Hanaa, who, at least for this week, was all about shortcuts to shortcake.  She found some leftover lemon muffins in her freezer, and soaked them in still-liquid posset, tres leches style.  Or as she said, "If England and South America got married, and had a baby...."

Let's end this roundup on a celebratory note.  As Kim suggested, a toast to Rose is in order.  "So everyone!  Please!  Raise your glasses to Rose, for without you and your good work, I would never have known such delight."  Cheers!

Next week is a traditional Purim delight:  Hamantaschen.  I had already decided I'd take Rose's suggested easy route and buy already made poppyseed filling.  So far, I can't find it, so I may either use a fruit filling or give up and make my own poppyseeds.  Rose has devised a cookie that's better than any hamantaschen I've eaten from a bakery, and I'm looking forward to these little filled goodies.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lemon Posset Shortcakes

I loved these little gems. although I do have a tiny bone to pick with the idea of including these in the Quick and Easy list.  Here are the reasons:  1)  "Cool completely."  2)  "Allow the syrup 2 hours to distribute into the cake before applying the apple glaze."  3)  "Let the glaze set for 30 minutes before filling the cakes."  4)  "Refrigerate [the posset] 3 to 4 hours before filling the shortcakes."  5) "Refrigerate the partially filled shortcakes for 1 hour..." 6)  "Refrigerate the shortcakes ... for at least 2 hours to set."  I was planning a rather spartan dinner because of the possets we were having for dessert, so we were going to have them for dessert.  That means I cheated a bit (considerably) on some of those wait times.  Other than the fact that I should have started making these in the a.m. iinstead of the p.m., I have no complaints.

My balloon whisk got a workout in this recipe.  It's at the ready!

Browning the butter.  This task takes a certain bravery because it immediately goes from the perfect point of brownness to being burnt, so I usually don't play chicken.  I step back before it's perfectly brown, which just means it's imperfectly brown.

This was always my favorite shot in Heavenly Cake Bakers--when the egg yolks turned into this thick, rich batter.  I still love it.

I was absolutely sure that I had another canister of Wondra flour in my pantry, but either I didn't or someone stole it.  (That seems unlikely, doesn't it?)  I was only about 15 grams short, so I decided not to mess with the cornstarch--I just added 15 grams of cake flour, and had no trouble mixing it in, so I felt like my luck was running on high.

It didn't seem like there was much batter to go into each pan, so I hoped they would rise.

And they did!  These cakes always remind me of Twinkies, which was my favorite treat when I was about 10 years old.  Rose's shortcakes probably don't have the shelf life of Twinkies, which apparently are no longer made.  Maybe if the world as we know it ends, all that will be left are cockroaches and packaged Twinkies.

I think it was genius to use Meyer lemons in the posset.  In fact, there was an article in the Guardian about how to make a perfect lemon posset, and several people wrote comments suggesting that orange possets were better than lemon.  The particular Meyer lemons that I picked up were very mild--more toward an orange set of flavors than very tart and lemony, and I think the final dessert could have been just hint more tart.  If I'd tasted it first, I would have added a very small amount of non-Meyer lemon juice.  Still, I think with the creamy, delicate posset, too mellow is better than too sharp.

I was surprised to hear that people were having trouble finding apple jelly, which I would have guessed was the most boring and most obtainable jelly of them all.  I bought a bigger jar of Smucker's apple jelly than I wanted, because I probably won't use it for anything else besides this.  Its bland sweetness proved to be a good foil, though.

And it makes the shortcakes so pretty and shiny!  I had to read the instructions for filling the shortcakes two or three times.  Initially, it sounded complicated, but I finally realized they were just saying to skim off the thick part of the posset first and then let the rest firm up.  I emptied the posset into two soup bowls, and it thickened readily. 

I didn't let it thicken enough before I added the rest--you can see the dribbles down the side.  You can also see that the decorative strips of lemon rind didn't turn out as decoratively as they might.  In my head, they looked beautiful.  In reality, the best I can say for them is that they'd be great if I were trying to do hieroglyphics or some kind of code.  Could I convince you that the lemon rind says "Eat me" in ancient Assyrian?  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Midweek Roundup: Did Pavarotti Hit the Right Notes?

Photograph by Jill
Fabulous Sweet Fillings

There are 25 Alpha Bakers, and I would be amazed if these smart, opinionated people would all agree on anything, but I don't remember such disagreement about a baking project in a long time.  I'm not talking disagreement like, "Chocolate cake isn't my favorite" as opposed to "I love anything chocolate."  That's a matter of taste, and we'll get to that when we get to the ganache.  This difference is like we're talking about two different cakes.

Here's Raymond's take on the Chocolate Pavarotti:  "This is one of Rose's TETG (Too Easy-Too Good recipes....  I have a hard time describing the texture of this cake.  It is light and airy but at the same time almost dense and moist.  The addition of white chocolate produces a cake with a full, rich chocolate flavor without being too overwhelming."

And here is Patricia's reaction to the same cake:  "The cake was very crumbly and it didn't taste very chocolaty, despite containing a lot of cocoa and melted chocolate."

Now, Raymond and Patricia are two excellent bakers, so it's not a question of one being "wrong." And Patricia was not the only one in the "crumbly" camp.  Nancy described the cake's "dry and crumbly texture," as did Glori.

But Jen said it was "light, moist, and tender," and Orin described it as "moist, melt in your mouth."

What was going on?  The chatter started on Facebook.  Could it be the difference in cocoas?  Could the brand of white chocolate make a difference?  Vicki unearthed an article by chemist-cook Shirley Corriher that explains the chemical ins and outs of cooking with cocoa:  among other things, it recommends baking with Dutch-style rather than natural cocoa, and reminds you that a cake made with cocoa can be dry if you don't compensate by adding extra liquid or subtracting flour.  Could the answer to the mystery be as simple as that?  After all, Lois used natural cocoa and found the cake "dry and unappealing" and Mendy, who loved the cake so much that he doubled the recipe, noted that he added a little extra water.

But wait a minute--if that's all there is to the mystery, I'm going to have to stop here without even talking about the ganache or the many imaginative and beautiful ways this cake turned out.  So I'm going to talk about another variable too:  white chocolate.  If you're at all like me, you got your first taste of "white chocolate" with something that wasn't chocolate at all--an intensely sweet concoction (maybe used in almond bark), made of vegetable oil and various unnatural flavors and colors.  At first, I loved it because it was sweet and that was all I required.  Then I got a little more persnickety and scoffed at white chocolate.  Then along came Rose with her white chocolate frosting and her requirement that it contain cocoa butter, and suddenly I'm a white chocolate fan again.

But would the amount of cocoa butter make a difference?  Nancy's blog suggested this possibility when she said that the white chocolate she had on hand was old and didn't melt properly, and she described her cake's texture as "crumbly."

I cleverly sleuthed the Alpha Bakers' blogs to see what their mise-en-place photos might tell me.

Glori:  "Crumbly" but moist.  Ghiradelli white chocolate.
Vicki:  "Delizioso!"  Lindt White Chocolate Coconut.
Jenn:  "Texture is lovely--soft and moist."  Green and Black's white chocolate.

But I soon tired of this detective work after I noticed that too many people (including me) were not taking pictures of our white chocolate labels.  So after my extensive, exhaustive research, here is what I recommend:  Use the chocolates and cocoas recommended in The Baking Bible on pages 519 and 522, or use something that you know you like.  If you think that chocolate cakes made with cocoa tend toward dryness, add a little more water (this is my advice, not Rose's, so take it at your own risk).

Now let's talk about the most fun thing about this cake--the ganache made with cayenne pepper.  If you read my blog, you know that my tasters said "too hot, too hot, I need more milkie" and "Mom, this frosting tastes weird."  But my tasters apparently had abnormally tender palates.

Faithy thought the cayenne tasted nice in the ganache, but barely noticed it when she tasted it with the cake.  Some of her tasters couldn't detect it at all; others called it an "annoying aftertaste."  Faithy believes her Southeast Asian tastebuds, accustomed to spicy foods, have been "desensitized." Kim "could have handled more spice," but she used the minimum amount in deference to the children who would be eating the cake.  (Those children were obviously more sophisticated than my grandson; they all gave Kim a thumbs-up on the cake and the frosting).  Kristina and her husband both thought the ganache could have used more heat--like Faithy, they thought that once the ganache was actually on the cake, the cake itself tamed the spiciness.  Michele thought the cayenne made the ganache "wicked great"!  Katya said the ganache was "indeed, very good ganache," but she found this "unsurprising" since it "the name indicates that it is clearly from Massachusetts, and all things from Massachusetts are excellent."  You will not be surprised to learn where Katya hails from.

And in the you-can't-please-everyone department, please note Catherine's experience.  She realized she was out of cayenne, and decided not to run out and buy some since she was taking it to work. One of her co-workers told her she thought the frosting would be really good with a bit of chili.

One last thing about this cake--since there were no photos of it in the book, people let their imaginations run wild when they decorated it, leading to some especially beautiful and imaginative versions (and to Jim's most difficult photo choice to date):  Faithy's wonder of sprinkly swirls; Tony's rococo romance; Orin's Valentine's Day heart; Jill's hearts AND sprinkles extravaganza; Alice's pairing with caramel whipped cream; Monica's exquisite and graceful chocolate swirls; Michele's unforgettable chocolate rose.  I was glad I didn't have to make the photo decision this time.

By now, we should be looking at the lemon posset shortcakes recipe.  Another Q&E--a belated Valentine's Day present from Rose and Woody.  Some people won't be able to find Wondra flour; some people won't be able to find Meyer lemons.  Rose has suggested alternatives in both cases.  Hope you love this simple, lemony dessert.

Happy birthday, Vicki!
Happy anniversary, Monica!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Chocolate Pavarotti with Wicked Good Ganache (Valentine's Day)

February 16, 2015

Since we did beta testing for The Baking Bible, this Pavarotti cake has been one of three easy, go-to cakes that I rely on for when I need a quick dessert.  This cake is not technically a Quick & Easy, but in reality, it's both.  And, as I discovered this time, if the cake breaks in half (as it did when I was flipping it between cooling racks), there's no harm done:  you just put the cake parts together as best you can and cover them with ganache.  Not only can you not detect it when you're looking at the frosted cake (unless you're looking for it), but you can't even detect it when you're serving it.  Especially if you do your best to cut the slices from the more or less intact pieces.

Maybe it's not technically Quick and Easy because you have to melt some white chocolate to mix in the batter?  Its purpose is "higher rise and moister, melt-in-the-mouth texture."  It delivers what it promises.  And it's not a difficult step.

Nice, rich, delicious-looking chocolate batter, yes?

I suppose I might as well show you the damage:  the cake's in two large pieces, the smaller one intact, but the larger one damaged, with big gouges in several places.  I was able to fit the two big pieces together pretty neatly, despite the large crack, which was just filled in with some extra ganache.  Woody said putting ganache on a cake was like working with cement.  This seemed more like grouting tile.  Neither of these chores is something I normally do.

Now about the wicked good ganache.  Aside from its spackling qualities, it's also delicious.  However, I live in Minnesota, a place that is widely known for its inhabitants' aversion to spice.  Especially to spice that might be considered "hot."  So when Rose gives a range of cayenne from 1/4 teaspoon to 3/4 teaspoons, I think about my audience, and I use 1/8 teaspoon.  I made my grandson cry.  He tucked into the chocolate and then started yelling, "too hot, too hot!  I need milkie!"  But once he understood that the big burn came from the frosting and not the cake, he happily ate the cake.  His mother said, "I think cayenne in frosting is just weird.  I'll have some cake without the ganache."

But the women for whom I actually baked the cake--Minnesotans all--not only ate it without complaining about the spiciness or demanding a glass of milk--they actually asked for the recipe.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Midweek Roundup: Catch-Up Week #1

Photograph by Patricia

Before I start the summaries, I have a few announcements:

  • Orin is not a man.  Although I kept referring to her as "he," she is actually a "she."  I did the same thing to Kim, when I invited her to join the group, but called her "Robert."  I will try not to commit any more gender faux pas.
  • Jim is now choosing the picture of the week, because he knows more about photography than I do,  and it was making me unhappy to have to choose just one photo.
  • According to the Alpha Bakers First Completely Scientific Poll, we will continue having a Catch-Up week about every three months.  (That sounds like we've had other polls, but they weren't scientific.  I just found the poll widget, so I'll probably be looking for other poll questions.)
Two people baked the Black and Blueberry Pie, and both were happy to have had the experience of the other Alpha Bakers to guide them.  Michele, having read about the too-juicy pies that others experienced, increased the amount of cornstarch.  This was a good idea.  Replacing the lemon zest with lemon oil wasn't such a good idea, she said, because there was a bitter aftertaste.  She also denied that the decorative cut-outs in her pie crust resembled the thumb and finger holes of a bowling ball, as her husband claimed.  Finally, she loved the crust.

Jen did not love the crust.  Although her berries were perfect, since she followed the collective wisdom of Rose and the Alpha bakers, her crust was "100% not flaky."  Because of this lack of flakiness and general lack of cooperation of the pie dough, she and pie crust are "not friends yet."  But I'm impressed that she included the word "yet" in that sentence, which I take to mean that she believes she and crust will one day be on better terms.  As someone who sometimes vehemently curses pie dough while she is attempting to roll it out, I understand the "not friends" feeling.  (Jen, if pie crust friended you on Facebook, would you accept?)

Although we've made a number of cookie recipes, only one person--Tony--used Catch-Up Week to do cookies.  His were a variation of his previous variation on gingersnaps (the variation that included horseradish).  I believe I mentioned Tony's horseradish cookies several times during the Midweek Roundup, and don't think he didn't notice!  ("I think from our Weekly Round Up that week, Marie must have thought I had gone mad with spices.")  This version contains horseradish powder or wasabi powder, Chinese five-spice powder, white pepper, and mace--along with the ginger, of course.  After shaping the cookies, he pressed them in grated lemon zest.  He highly recommends this cookie to any spice lovers out there.  

Katya also made a sort of variation--Mango Bread with Mixed Nuts instead of Apricot Bread with Walnuts.  She also added a little sourdough starter to her biga--otherwise it was pretty much the same as the original recipe.  I have to say that Swedish and Mango don't seem to belong in the same sentence.  Next time, she'll double or triple the recipe and use more rye flour.  You should also read her blog for an interesting description of a Chicago librarians' convention.  Did you know that librarians wear "colorful cardigans and cool tights"?  I think it's in the job description?

Remember when we made panettone?  And how Patricia did not like the looks of her biga (a "biga fail," she said).  So she made it again.  This time there was no failure at all, even though the final rise just about drove her crazy with its slowness.  Still, if you look at the picture of the week, you'll agree that the final product justifies the bread's general tendency to move at a snail's pace.  

Catherine had not yet made the Chocolate Cuddle cake, so she opted to try it this week.  Her title:  "Chocolate Heaven and Toffee Hell" pretty much tells her story.   Her description of her caramel-making adventure sounds a little testy, so if you read it, you may think that Catherine is not as good-natured as her previous posts may have led you to believe.  And she also throws some gratuitous insults at American dessert names.  Sure, "shoo-fly pie" is not the most attractive name you've ever heard, but what about Spotted Dick?  Anyway, all's well that ends well, and the "traumatic process turned into the most delicious caramel cream."

Jenn went all the way back to the Kouigns Amann, this time making them with pastry rings (well, technically, hash brown rings, but who cares?)  Hash brown rings apparently lead to perfection in the Kouign Amann department--perfectly shaped, perfectly caramelized, perfectly delicious.  And Jenn gets some kind of heavenly extra credit, I'm sure, for giving away 6 of her 8 Kouigns.  

Glori did something a little different for Catch-Up Week--she wrote a tribute to Rose, starting with the love of baking bread which she got from The Bread Bible and ending with why she loves being an Alpha baker:
I feel that I have come a long way in my baking skills, but there is so much more to learn.  Every week, I'm excited to read the recipe and see what new technique I will be learning.  Oh sure, I might not like the final outcome as far as taste but if I learned something then it was worth the time and effort I put into it.  While I do feel that I am becoming "fearless," I still won't stray from Rose's recipe, at least the first time around. But, by asking what would Rose do, trying my own variation on things won't be so scary. Thanks, Rose, for helping me become a more confident baker!
Back to our regularly scheduled baking program next week--the Chocolate Pavarotti with Wicked Good Ganache.  As I mentioned last week, those with timid taste buds may think that even the minimal 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne in the ganache recipe is too much, so know your tasting audience.

Happy Valentine's Day!


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Catch-Up Week: "Quick and Easy" Panettone

No, it's not.  It's not really quick and easy.  Just so we get that established right away.

Since I don't have anything to catch up on, I planned to do one of the other things I suggested doing for Catch-Up week.  I planned to make the gingersnaps again, and make them right--this time with caster sugar and using the correct amount of ginger.  But my caster sugar, ordered from deepest England, hasn't arrived yet.  So I decided instead to make the panettone again, and this time make it wrong.  Deliberately.

The main thing I did was to skip the biga altogether, and add the water, flour, and yeast from the biga into the sponge and flour mixtures.  I have nothing against bigas, and I don't mind making bread that takes a week.  In fact, I like projects like that because they don't require much work on a day-to-day basis, and as long as I don't completely forget about it and leave the biga in the refrigerator for a month or two, I figure I'm doing all right in the memory department.  But sometimes if you want a piece of panettone for breakfast, you don't feel like waiting for a week, by which time you'll probably have lost the yen.

The only other thing I did was to add more yeast (3/4 of a teaspoon more) to make up for the fermenting power of the biga.  More yeast also allowed me to shorten almost all the suggested resting and rising times.  The dough was still sticky and supple, as in the original one-week panettone (OWP)--perhaps a little harder to handle, but not much.  I think I may have added more flour in the two-day panettone (TDP).

Even my shortened version requires an overnight sponge and a few restings and risings during the second day.  So if you want instant gratification, you won't get it even with a TDP.  My real question was how much taste and texture I'd lose by speeding up the process.

The additional yeast really made the dough go to town!  I planned for a three- to four-hour first rise, but it was billowing over the top of its bowl after two hours.  And the oven spring!  I had to remove the top rack in my oven or the top of the bread would have vined itself onto the rack.  As it was, I had to remove one dough tendril to free the rack.

Here is a comparison between the two slices of bread:



The OWP has a smaller, denser crumb, making it more cake-like in texture.  The TDP is definitely bread.  The OWP wins the texture contest, but the TDP's isn't terrible.

Taste?  Jim had a slice of the TDP, and exclaimed, "That's really good!"  I asked him how it compared to the OWP, and he said, "Didn't that one have chocolate sauce?"  I said it did, and he said he couldn't compare chocolate to non-chocolate.  

I think that if you tasted the TDP and didn't know it had been hurried up, you'd say, "That's not quite as good as I remembered."  But a bread made with all that butter and all those eggs and Lyle's syrup and excellent-quality candied orange peel isn't going to be bad.  I think I have to make this again two or three more times in the course of a year in order to use up the rest of the expensive orange peel.  Next time it'll be the OWP.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Midweek Roundup: The Elusive Pumpernickel

Photograph by Mendy (Greenstein's Bakery)

I was pleased with myself when I came up with this title, but then I thought, Marie, not everyone is 100 years old, and no one is going to get your stupid pun.  The Elusive Pimpernel?  As in The Scarlet Pimpernel?  You know, the series of swashbuckling novels written by Baroness Orczy?  You may not have wanted that information, but you should never turn down free knowledge, and, besides, the pumpernickel (flour) really was elusive.

For Vicki, the recipe "was a lesson in rye flour vs. pumpernickel flour, the disappearance of flour mills in California, what happened to the hippy health food grind your own flour shops, and now a field trip to historic Napa Bale Grist Mill is top of the list because they stone ground real pumpernickel flour."  Since she  found the answers to all these questions, the pumpernickel is no longer elusive to Vicki.  In fact, the meaning of life is a bit clearer.

Nor was it a problem for Kristina, because she grinds her own flour anyway.  And, since she "was able to adjust the granularity on [her] mill," she produced "something that (probably) closely resembles pumpernickel flour."  There is no way that I'm jealous of people who know how to grind their own flour.  Or to adjust the granularity on their own mill.  Or to know what granularity is.  Kim found a coarse dark rye flour (which was probably pumpernickel, even though not labeled as such), and she found that she could "really taste the ripening of the biga and the depth of flavour.  It had developed a slight tang, which was beautifully balanced by the sweetness of the apricot."

Jenn used Arrowhead Mills Organic Rye Flour.  Hanaa used a coarse-ground organic rye flour because that's what she had on hand (it's amazing what people have on hand, isn't it?)  Orin used pumpernickel flour (even though no one else could seem to find it).  By the way, in case this happens again, King Arthur offers pumpernickel artisan bread flavor (a mix of pumpernickel flour, sourdough, and caraway); organic pumpernickel bread flour; and dark pumpernickel yeast bread mix.  I don't know why we don't have these all on hand, especially the pumpernickel bread flour.

Lest that you think that I'm being paid to plug King Arthur flours, I'll have to add Faithy's experience with her King Arthur flour, recounted in all too vivid detail:  "I found a worm (translucent orangey worm) wiggling in my sifter after sifting the KA bread flour....  And I opened another new packet and found strings of eggs sitting at the sides of the paper packaging."  Faithy is just beset by wildlife!  First she has to protect her food from her lizards and then she finds large orange worms in her flour sifter.  Remind me not to complain too much about living in Minnesota, where at least nasty little creatures die over the winter and a translucent orange worm has never been seen in a flour sifter. 

More than the pumpernickel, the walnuts were a sticking point for some of us.  Let's start with Glori. Glori doesn't like dried fruit, and she's not counting or anything, but this is the fourth recipe in ten that's used dried fruit.  Just sayin.  (Actually, I'm not wild about dried fruit either, so maybe I was subconsciously trying to get rid of all the dried fruit recipes.  If so, I think I failed).  And she hates walnuts!  With a passion.  But did our dedicated Alpha Baker let that stop her from baking a bread that's rife with fruit and walnuts?  It did not.  I wish that I could say it transformed her into a walnut-loving girl, but no such luck.  "It looked like some deep sea creature with one eye and bumps over its body," and it tasted like walnuts.  And she may not have mentioned that she despises walnuts.

Patricia didn't use walnuts because she was baking for a person who has allergies.  (By the way, if you want to see a neat, well-stocked baking kitchen, go no farther than the wonderful kitchen that Patricia's photos reveal.)   Hanaa also omitted the walnuts because she's allergic to all nuts except almonds, and substituted dried cranberries.  Because she's Hanaa, she made some other changes, including adding olive oil and dried milk, and substituting dates for apricots.  But she LOVED the bread!  (And those are her caps, not mine).

Although this bread was not a uniform favorite with everyone, the people who liked it really liked it.  In addition to Hanaa, Michele was "crazy about this bread."  She thought that the "contrasts between the crisp crust, the sweet apricots and rains and the crunchy walnuts" was "addictive."  And she loved the way the bread paired with  baked brie--"pure poetry."

Jenn made the bread for her husband, as the substitute for the no-knead bread that she bakes for him once a month.  She thought he'd like a change.  Jenn, how long have you been married?  Men do not like change.  There may be exceptions to this rule, but we won't even think about them since this is a family blog.  But if you've been making the same bread every month for three years, or five, or ten, there is no reason for you to think that he would like a change!  Fortunately, Jenn promised him that she'd make his bread if he didn't like the new kind, and even more fortunately, he liked it.  But remember the incident of the Swedish Apricot Bread the next time you think he'd like a change.

On the other hand, to Monica, who had high hopes for the bread, it turned out to be "tasteless," or with an aftertaste she didn't like.  The crunch of the walnuts was the only thing that saved the bread from boredom.  (Maybe Monica and Glori would both like the bread if they each ate the parts they liked:  between the two of them, they could lick the platter clean).

Like Monica, Raymond also complained that the bread had a bitter aftertaste, so he did what an Alpha Baker does--he made it a second time.  He deduced that the problem was with the rye flour and the length of the ferment, so his remake had a biga ferment of one day instead of three, and it had no overnight rise.  Since a biga is supposed to add depth of flavor without a yeasty taste, minimizing it should not, in theory, make the  bread taste better.  But at some point (the point of the bitter aftertaste), you have to throw away the theory and go for the flavor.

Now Catherine may have gotten a little more theory than she bargained for.  She noticed that her bread had a bluish tinge, which she likened to the rather awful blue rinses that ladies of a certain age used to get at the local beauty parlor.

Rose noticed the blue cast (of the bread, not of anyone's hair) and asked her if she'd toasted the walnuts.  Not toasting them, Rose said, might account for the blue cast; in fact,  she said, food scientist Shirley Corriher used to give a lecture entitled, "How to Keep Your Nuts from Turning Blue."

Now here's a first for the Alpha Bakers!  Tony was so taken with this bread and the many possible food and wine combinations with it, he decided to make the bread and market it as a romantic gift basket, paired with merlot and/or pinot noir, a triple creme cheese and a jar of preserves (apricot? cherry?)

It made me very happy to see that in several households this bread really was used as a part of a Tu be'Shvat celebration (or the New Year of the Trees, as Mendy called it).  I love the idea of a holiday that you celebrate by eating fruit and nuts and also by marking a new year for "delineating this year's tithe from last year's."  So it was celebrated in Mendy's beautiful family and so the bread was enjoyed.  ("I should have doubled the recipe.")

And Orin is adding this bread to his family's traditional Tu be'Shvat fruit plate.  He explained the meaning of the holiday in a better way than I did:  "It is a minor festival that has gained importance in the last decade as an environmental holiday.  It ... reminds us about the return to the land after wandering in the desert for 40 years.  God instructed the Jews to revive the land and plant trees, fruits, vegetables and grain.

If you've read all the way to here, you may be asking who Orin is.  Since one of the original Alpha Bakers never baked anything, I asked Orin if he would be interested in having a spot.  He formed a blog and started baking.  Please check out his blog ("Orin's Goodies") and welcome him to the group.

Next week is our first Catch-up Date, and I'm looking forward to seeing what you're going to do for this week.  The following week:  Chocolate Pavarotti with Wicked Good Ganache.  This was one of the Beta testing recipes, so a few of you have made this before.  Those who aren't are in for a pleasant surprise.  It will make a great Valentine's Day dessert, but if you're not interested, it will also make a great Any Day of the Week dessert.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Swedish Apricot Walnut Bread

Well, first of all, Happy Tu be'shvat, or Jewish Arbor Day!  Mendy sent me a list of Jewish holidays (thanks, Mendy!), and I was having a hard time finding an appropriate recipe.  It seemed like it should be a middle-Eastern fruit that grows on trees, and I thought apricots met those requirements.  (Don't even tell me if apricots don't really grow on trees).  Wheat is also celebrated on Tu be'shvat, so a bread also seemed appropriate.  Tu be'shvat is spelled in multiple different ways in English, but if you have a complaint about the way I spelled it, take it up with Mendy.

This bread has quite a lot going for it.  It's pretty easy (you have to make a biga ahead of time, but that only takes a few minutes, and then you can ignore it for hours); it's perfect on a cheese board and so much more homey than crackers; it makes fabulous toast after its first outing; and I got to make it with my adorable grandson.

I had a terrible shock when I opened the bag of apricots.  They were black!  At first, I thought I'd bought prunes by mistake, but, no, they were definitely supposed to be apricots.  Paul Newman apricots.  Poor man.  If only he knew how quality control at his little factory had deteriorated after his death.  I was not going to put disease-ridden apricots in my bread, so I opened the tin of mixed fruits and nuts I keep on hand for snacking and managed to pull out enough apricot-colored apricots for the bread.  I plumped them in a little water, and they looked a-ok.  I would have plumped them in apricot brandy, but JJ's mother would not have been amused.

By the bye, I googled "black apricots" and discovered that they probably weren't disease-ridden, but were just unsulphured.  I suppose one could make a case that unsulphured apricots are healthier, but I don't think you'll find any colored pictures of black apricots gracing the bags in the dried fruits section of your supermarket.  Frankly, their color is not a selling point.  From now on, I'll buy apricots in bulk so I can see what I'm getting.

I told JJ that there was something amazing about this bread.  "What is amazing, Lulu?"  he said.  "Just wait until I do the walnuts,."  I said. I thought he'd think it was great that I could rub off most of the skins from the walnuts, so I roasted them, and rubbed them in a dish towel, and, with great fanfare, showed him the result.  "This is not amazing to me, Lulu," he said.  Also, he looked at me like I was a little wacky, but I blame the iPad, which does so many truly amazing things that walnut skins left on a dish towel don't have a chance in the competition.

After the nuts are skinned and cooled, you simply mix the dough.

After my false advertising with the amazing walnuts, JJ kind of lost interest in the project, especially when I offered him a piece of walnut and my daughter yelled, "Choking hazard!"  Poor JJ may have been suffering an extreme loss of faith in his Lulu, who first came up with black apricots, then completely failed to deliver on the amazingness claim, and then apparently tried to choke him.  The kitchen got quieter.

Rising (twice) into a fruity, puffy dough.

I guess I never got a picture of how you "set the apricots in a staggered row lengthwise across the dough, under the triangle."  In fact, I didn't get a picture of the triangle, but the directions were easy to follow.

This loaf is by no means perfectly shaped.  There are occasional nodules and the odd burnt raisin.  But that just makes it look homemade (by a not very exacting baker).  And it looks just fine sliced.

And wouldn't that have looked ugly with black apricots?  I'm so glad I didn't let myself be talked into using them by one of the web sites touting their health benefits:  "organically grown, "NO preservatives or pesticides," "deep, dark, complex."  Maybe.

The final test of this bread (of any bread, in my book) is what kind of toast it makes.  This bread makes excellent toast--crusty and nutty, with some sweetness, but not as sweet as a muffin or breakfast cake.  I was sad when I took the last two slices out of the freezer (well, they're small, so you have to have two, right?)

Another thing you can do to mark Tu be'shvat is to plant a tree.  This is clearly not a celebration arising from the North American frigid northland.  But celebrating it with this bread is not only possible, it's delicious.  Hope you enjoy it, Mendy--and everyone else!