Archive for the ‘Baked Goods’ Category

Fall is upon us here in Connecticut, and we are entering into the most magical time of year in the Nutmeg State. This weekend, Greg and I took a long drive on our way to the annual Celtic Festival in Hartford, and the display of foliage was just spectacular.  The Celtic Festival featured a  “weight over bar” event in the Highland Games and samples of traditional Welsh cookies.  If the two namesake festivals are any indication, we learned that Celtic and Asian cultures differ tremendously.

We have a surfeit of overripe bananas on our counter these days, and smittenkitchen just posted a new “crackly” banana bread recipe a few days ago. Though I have my long-standing go-to banana bread recipe, the raw millet added in this version caught my fancy. Millet is one of the staple grains around the world, but in the U.S. is primarily used as birdseed. The protein content of millet is roughly equivalent to that of wheat four, and it has a nice fluffy texture that is similar to that of couscous.

I made a number of adjustments to the smittenkitchen version of this recipe. First, I eliminated all additional sugars. The recipe called for brown sugar and maple syrup, but bananas are really sweet enough on their own. Additionally, after seeing this horrifying infograph recently, I decided we don’t really need to contribute to our lifetime intake of processed sugar.

The other big adjustment is that in place of whole wheat flour, I used a homemade almond-oat flour.Wheat flour is delicious and inexpensive, but we’ve found that almond-oat flour just adds a nice touch of extra flavor and nutrients. 1 part almonds, 2 part oats — grind it up in a food processor or Magic Bullet or blender, until it is finely ground. A few small chunks of almonds may remain, and for most baking purposes, a bit of extra crunch is nice.

Our version also is a bit more heavily spiced than smittenkitchen’s. I can also envision this being delicious with some ground cardamom or dark chocolate chunks. Enjoy!

Crackly Banana Bread (original from Smitten Kitchen)

3 large ripe-to-over-ripe bananas
1 large egg
1/3 cup melted butter or oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon freshly ground cloves
1 teaspoon freshly ground allspice
1 1/2 cups almond-oat flour
1/4 cup uncooked millet

Preheat your oven to 350°F and butter a 9×5-inch loaf pan. In the bottom of a large bowl, mash bananas with a potato masher or the back of a wooden spoon until virtually smooth but a few tiny lumps remain. Whisk in egg, then oil, brown sugar and syrup. Sprinkle baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves over mixture and stir until combined. Stir in flour until just combined, then millet.

Pour mixture into prepared pan and bake until a tester comes out clean, about 40 to 50 minutes. Cool loaf in pan on rack.


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After baking these incredible carrot shortbread cookies over the weekend, we are a bit hooked on carrots in dessert. Partly due to our healthy diet kick, and partly due to a family-sized bag of Costco carrots in our fridge, we decided to try our hand at another carrot dessert.

Very rarely do we bake something that is a complete personal invention. Tonight, however, after scouring the Internet for a simple healthy recipe for carrot cake, we decided to resort to our own devices. The recipes we found online all required ingredients we don’t usually keep in stock — wheat germ, flax seed, etc. — or just seemed to involve too many steps for a weekday treat.

The result of our creative genius was blog-worthy. This carrot cake is light and fluffy, almost like a souffle, due to the separating of eggs in the first step. It is naturally sweetened with banana, and only had an additional 2 tablespoons of sugar. The next time I do this, I might play around with excluding the sugar altogether and adding the other half of the banana. I may also try adding a tablespoon or two of coconut oil or cocoa powder for a completely different twist. We used almonds in this recipe, but hazelnuts or walnuts would be delicious as well, especially if toasted for a few minutes prior to grinding.

Simple, Healthy Carrot Cake

3 eggs, separated
3/4 c nuts, ground finely
8 carrots, peeled, grated
1 1/2 ripe bananas
1 T vanilla extract
1 t cinnamon
2 T brown sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Gently butter a 8″x8″ square cake pan.

Using a stand mixer, beat egg whites until they hold stiff peaks. Set aside. In a separate bowl, combine carrots and bananas and stir until well-mixed. Add egg yolks, vanilla, ground nuts, cinnamon, and brown sugar, mixing after each addition. Combine until well-mixed.

Fold egg whites gently into carrot batter, 1/2 cup at a time. Pour batter into prepared pan, and bake for 25 minutes, watching carefully.

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At this point you can relax and anticipate your freshly baked bread–all that remains is tinkering punctuated by a few moments of quickly opening and closing the oven door.  Instructions for the actual baking vary pretty dramatically.  I’ve seen temperature variations of 75 degrees for the same type of bread!  Some say start at 450 and drop to 400, while others bake at 375 with no drop.  There’s no real mystery as to what difference that makes: a warmer oven is going to give you a harder, thicker crust.  With all the variation, there are some underlying themes to note.

First, if you are making a free-form loaf, put the dough onto something that is already hot, like a baking/pizza stone or a pre-heated cast iron pan.  When you open the oven and put in the dough, the temperature in the oven is going to fall, so having a hot stone or a dutch oven will ensure that the dough starts baking right away.  Be sure to put the dutch oven or the pizza stone into a cold oven and then preheat, otherwise it may crack!

Second, try to keep the dough moist.  The easiest way to do this is to bake in a dutch oven with the cover on for the first 25-30 minutes.  This will trap the steam that is naturally released from the dough.  A wet environment will prevent the crust from getting too hard and will thus allow the bread to rise more as it bakes.  If you don’t use a dutch oven, one suggestion is to put a baking dish with some ice cubes on the bottom of the oven.  The ice cubes will let off steam as they melt.

Third, be sure to slash the bread to release steam.  You can be pretty aggressive with the slashes–as deep as an inch–and use any pattern you want.  Parallel slashes can make it easier to cut so long as you cut along the slashes later (cutting between slashes is a chore).  Take a sharp, non-serrated knife, oil the blade, and cut along the top of the dough just before putting it in the oven.

Fourth, let the bread cool 20-30 minutes after it comes out of the oven.  The bread will be very hard when it first comes out but will soften significantly as it cools.

As for knowing when the bread is done–if you think it’s done it probably is.  Yes, you can test with a thermometer or tap and listen for a hollow thud.  Getting an accurate read with a thermometer is difficult with bread, and a “thud” is far from a technical term.  But the real point is that I’ve found that for standard loaves, there isn’t much of a difference between 5 minutes undercooked and 5 minutes overcooked, which gives you a good 10 minute window to have acceptable bread.  So find a few recipes and get a range.  Experts will surely disagree with me.

As for the European yeast bread we’ve been making in this series, 50 minutes at 400 in a dutch oven, covered for 25-30 minutes and uncovered for the remainder–that’s the best method I’ve found.

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Hello readers! Our Fourth of July week was a whirlwind of fun, resulting in 4 parties, 2-3 house guests, and minimal blogging. We kicked off the week with a dinner party for some new friends, capped it off with a celebration at Caseus, and filled the rest of the week with baking and cooking galore!

Our Fourth of July menu included the following:

  • Lechon roasted on the grill
  • Thai-inspired summer slaw
  • Grilled bread
  • Corn on the cob
  • Strawberry-blueberry pie
Lechon is a traditional pork dish in Spain and in former Spanish colonial possessions (including Venezuela). It’s typically a whole suckling pig roasted over charcoal for several hours, until it’s deliciously tender and smoky. Somehow, we couldn’t find a whole pig to buy (darn you, New Haven!) so we settled for a shoulder instead.
10-lb. pork shoulder, lean (for 15 people, with leftovers)
1 jalapeno, sliced thinly
2 onions, sliced thinly
dry rub, enough to cover surface of pork
Advance preparation: 24 hours before cooking, rub the pork liberally with your favorite dry rub. Ours was a homemade concoction of paprika, crushed red pepper, oregano, garlic powder, cracked black pepper, salt, and coffee. Wrap tightly and refrigerate. (If you fail to wrap tightly, your refrigerator may smell like pork for days!)
Day of: Light up the grill by placing hot coals on one side only of the grill. Place pork, onions, jalapeno in a grill-safe container. We used a disposable aluminum foil tray. Cover pork with two sheets of foil, leaving a bit of a crack at the top. The foil ensures that the pork will not dry out in its 8-hour sauna session, and the crack at the top ensures a wonderfully smoky flavor to circulate.  Place the pork on the other side of the grill where there are no coals. This ensures that the pork will cook with indirect heat. Do something else for the next eight hours and you might need to add more coals after 4 hours. Return, and remove pork from grill. Let it sit for one hour before serving. Pull apart gently with two forks.

Thai-Inspired Summer Slaw

Half head of red cabbage, shredded finely (on mandoline preferred)
Half head of green cabbage, shredded finely
6 scallions, diced
Fish sauce, to taste
Sesame oil, to taste
Habanero pepper, chopped

Advance preparation: Once the cabbage has been shredded, place in a large bowl and salt heavily. Refrigerate for 24 hours at least. This steps breaks down the toughness and bitterness of the cabbage.

Day of: Squeeze the excess water out of the shredded cabbage. There should be a pool of salted water sitting at the bottom of the bowl. Discard water. The cabbage should be nicely tender and slightly salty. Add scallions and habenero pepper, and mix well. Add fish sauce and sesame oil to taste, and mix well. Let sit for at least 1 hour before serving.

Strawberry-Blueberry Pie with Mark Bittman’s Crust

1/2 c whole wheat flour
1/2 c all purpose flour
1 t sugar
1/2 c butter, cold
3 T ice water, plus more as needed
3 c berries
1 T cornstarch
2 T sugar

Advance preparation: The pie crust can be prepared up to two days before baking. Combine the flour, salt, and sugar in the container of a food processor; pulse once or twice. Add the butter and turn on the machine; process until the butter and flour are blended and the mixture looks like cornmeal, about 10 seconds.

Place the mixture in a bowl and sprinkle 3 tablespoons of water over it. Use a wooden spoon or a rubber spatula to gradually gather the mixture into a ball; if the mixture seems dry, add another ½ tablespoon ice water. When you can make the mixture into a ball with your hands, do so. Wrap in plastic wrap, flatten into a small disk, and freeze the dough for 10 minutes (or refrigerate for 30 minutes); this will ease rolling. (You can also refrigerate the dough for a day or two, or freeze it almost indefinitely.)

Day of:  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Ensconce the dough between two sheets of plastic wrap. Roll with light pressure, from the center out. (If the dough seems very sticky at first, add flour liberally; but if it becomes sticky only after you roll it for a few minutes, return it to the refrigerator for 10 minutes before proceeding.) Continue to roll, adding small amounts of flour as necessary, rotating the dough occasionally, and turning it over once or twice during the process. (Use ragged edges of dough to repair any tears, adding a drop of water while you press the patch into place.) When the dough is about 10 inches in diameter (it will be less than ¼-inch thick), place your pie plate upside down over it to check the size.

Move the dough into the pie pan by removing the first sheet of plastic wrap. Place the pie pan upside down on the uncovered side of the dough. Slide your hand underneath the pie crust, then flip both the pan and the dough right side up. Remove the second sheet of plastic wrap. When the dough is in the plate, press it firmly into the bottom and sides.. Trim the excess dough to about ½ inch all around, then tuck it under itself around the edge of the plate. Freeze the dough for 10 minutes.

Toss berries in cornstarch and sugar until well mixed. Fill pie with berries. Bake for 30 minutes or until crust is golden brown.

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At this point your dough is kneaded and rising away and there’s very little left to do but shape and bake.  Before discussing the last bit of handling you’ll need to do, it’s worth mentioning some things that I, well, forgot to mention earlier.

First, you can use less yeast and less sugar the longer you intend to let your bread rise.  More sugar will speed up the yeast, and more yeast will fill the dough faster.  If you find that your bread is rising more quickly than you had hoped, pop it in the fridge to slow it down, but be sure to take it out the fridge well before you shape it.  If not, the dough will be too cold to develop volume–though it will still develop flavor.  Obviously if you’ve added too little yeast the remedy is to just wait longer.

Second, it is possible to let yeast do their thing for too long, but only if not refrigerated.  Along with carbon dioxide, yeast also produce acids and alcohols during fermentation, which in moderation are good for flavor.  But fermenting yeast in a hot environment for too long could produce too many.  This is more of a disclaimer than a serious warning you should take, because even a 24-hour rise unrefrigerated should usually still be safe.

When your dough has doubled in size, you “punch” it down–which is a terrible misnomer.  Before punching down, the yeast and the air in the dough are unevenly distributed and as soon as you even touch it it’s going to collapse as the gigantic bubbles deflate.  Which is to say, it’s not ready for baking yet.  Before baking you must “shape” the dough, and before that you must “punch.” (Although, I have seen some people recommend against punching down precisely because they want the gargantuan bubbles.  Perhaps they’re better at handling the dough than I am.)

To “punch” all you are really doing is pressing on the dough to redistribute the air.  Turn out the dough on a floured surface.  Gently press down, fold over like a letter, and continue to press and repeat a few times.  If you were looking forward to letting out your aggression at this point, you’d be better served finding another outlet.  You can return the bread to continue rising for approximately another hour, or you can proceed to shape now.  (If you let it rise, you will punch it down again before shaping.)

If you are going to shape the dough now, let it rest about 20 minutes, covered with plastic wrap, before you shape it.  This is not imperative but it will make shaping easier.  How you shape the loaf will determine how it bakes, obviously.  But in particular, if you shape the loaf shallow, it’s going to bake up shallow.  This is especially important because any time you handle a risen loaf it collapse a bit, so if the loaf is not tall before you put it in your baking dish, it’s not going to be tall when it bakes.

The simplest way to shape a loaf is to form a ball by “tucking” the dough into itself on one end and letting it stretch it on the other.  Once spherical, you can press on the sides to create an oval, and even pull on the ends to create a “torpedo.”  Once shaped, let the dough rise, covered, for another hour, maybe two.  If you don’t let it rise again you’ll end up with a very dense, though still tasty, bread, since the dough does not have much time to rise once in the oven before developing a hard crust.  A “tighter” loaf will be easier to manage when you handle it again before baking.

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It’s the beginning of blueberry season here in Connecticut, and we spent the morning picking our own at Lyman’s Orchards. Lyman’s has made many an appearance on this blog, as it is one of the largest (>1,000 acres!) family farms in Connecticut. Lyman’s is one of the primary reasons we’re contemplating the possibility of staying in Connecticut past Greg’s graduation. The pizza here is great, Yale is okay, and having the best orchard in the world a mere half hour drive away certainly doesn’t hurt. (Actually, having our group of friends here is really the key reason we’d stay… but more on that two years from now.)

Blueberries are terrifically healthy, high in oxygen radical absorbance capacity (also known as ORACs) which can prevent brain aging and cancer! Blueberries are also a great source of dietary fiber, vitamin C, and manganese. The only catch is that due to their thin skins, they can easily absorb pesticides (if used), so be sure to wash carefully with water and a splash of vinegar to kill most bacteria and any mold spores.

We’ve been snacking on blueberries straight from the container since we got them, and have also enjoyed them with a splash of vanilla soy milk, and blended into a post-workout smoothie with some frozen strawberries and orange juice. And since we’re technically on a diet with a strict baking restriction imposed on me, we made just a mini-portion of following recipe. Enjoy!

Blueberry Tartlets*

1/2 c whole wheat flour
2 T confectioners’ sugar
3 T butter
1 T ice water

1 c blueberries, washed
1/8 c sugar
1/2 T cornstarch
1/2 T lemon juice
1/2 T lemon zest

Pulse flour, confectioners’ sugar, and a pinch of salt in a food processor to combine. Add butter, and process until the mixture resembles coarse meal, about 10 seconds. With processor running, add cold water gradually until a dough forms.

Shape dough into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap; refrigerate at least 30 minutes, or up to 1 day. Cut 1 disk into 6 pieces; on a lightly floured work surface, flatten each piece into a 2-inch round. Press a round onto bottom and up sides of each cup of a 6-cup nonstick muffin tin. Freeze 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Stir together granulated sugar, cornstarch, lemon zest, and a pinch of salt in a medium bowl. Add berries; toss to coat. Add lemon juice. Fill shells with berry mixture. Bake until crusts are brown and filling is bubbling, about 20 minutes. Let cool slightly in tins. Run a rubber spatula around tarts; remove from tins. Let cool completely on rack.

*This recipe has been halved to make six cupcake-sized tartlets (of which we gave away two!)

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Technology has revolutionized the kneading step of making bread.  With a Kitchen Aid mixer you can have perfectly kneaded dough in 7 minutes; with the powerful blades of a food processor, you can have it in less than two. (Mark Bittman tells the following joke: “In the past people had to do this by hand.  To think how sharp their hands must have been!”)  In addition to taking the elbow grease out of this stage, these appliances allow you to work with a much wetter dough than would be comfortable by hand–dough sticks more to your hands than to plastic or metal–which in my opinion yields a better loaf that rises more easily.

What “kneading” does is elongate and weave the gluten proteins in the dough.  Working the dough pulls the gluten into long and stretchy strands which then form a kind of “rubber band quilt.”  The layers of gluten catch the bubbles released by the yeast and make the dough rise. They also are necessary for a combination of tenderness and chewiness and for a smooth, taut crust.

Whether you’re using a sponge or not, when you first mix your ingredients, do so only for a short amount of time and then let the dough rest  covered with plastic wrap for twenty minutes.  This will allow the flour to absorb the water on its own and for everything to loosen up.  This will make kneading more effective because the “mixing” portion will already be done. (The first picture above shows this step.)

If kneading with a machine, use the times given above and for a Kitchen Aid mixer use number 5 or 6 (medium speed).  With a food processor, the dough should form a ball that rolls around on the blade when ready.  By hand, the motion you want is to push away/stretch the dough and fold it back over and then rotate 90 degrees.  Given what you are trying to achieve with the gluten strands, the motion is pretty intuitive and natural.  The dough is ready when it passes the “windowpane test.”  If you take a small piece of dough you should be able to pull it taut and thin enough to let pass light through without the dough tearing.  (The second picture above shows how this very wet dough looks after a thorough kneading.)

Once done, leave it in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap to let it rise.

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