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Excellent Experiments: Cinnamon Twist Bread

1 Sep

I have had the experience on a few occasions of starting a recipe assuming I had certain ingredients on hand, only to realize partway through that I was actually missing something. Yes, yes, I know this breaks the cardinal rule of “mise en place,” but we all err sometimes. There are also occasions when I know I don’t have the right things on hand and don’t care, because I’m simply going to try something and see what happens.

I found a recipe for a cinnamon twist bread ages ago. I remember that I loved the concept of it, but it called for several ingredients (and a cooking vessel, as I recall) that were either hard to find or that I didn’t want to buy because I couldn’t think of how else I would use them. I wrote off the recipe and moved on to something else. I never like it when things go to waste, so it’s always my preference to use ingredients that can be located in an average grocery store and have multiple uses. For whatever reason, I thought back to that pretty-looking loaf this morning. I decided to take what I know about bread and recreate the idea with ingredients and tools that an average home cook would have available. I was worried that it would turn out strange, but if you never try, you never know. And many times it’s worth trusting your instincts.

Cinnamon Twist Bread

Bread dough:

  • 3 cups bread flour
  • 3 oz. (6 tbsp.) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup instant mashed potato flakes
  • 1/4 cup nonfat dry milk
  • 3 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 1/4 tsp. instant yeast
  • 1 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup lukewarm water (105-110 degrees F)

Filling:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon

Topping:

  • 1 tbsp. granulated sugar

 

To make the bread dough, combine all of the ingredients in either a stand mixer or by hand and then knead until the dough is soft, smooth, and elastic.

Roll the dough into a ball, placed it in an oiled bowl, and toss to coat with oil.

Cover the bowl and allow the dough to rise until it has doubled in size. This can take anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes, depending on the temperature and humidity of your kitchen.

Once the dough has risen, turn it out onto a lightly greased surface and roll it into a 24 x 10 in. rectangle.

Combine the cinnamon and sugar and then sprinkle the dough with the mixture.

Roll the dough up lengthwise into a log and pinch the seam closed. Place the seam side facing down.

Using a sharp knife, cut the log in half lengthwise and leave the cut sides facing up. You may have to do a little pinching to make the ropes easier to handle. As you can see, there might be an errant rope or two. Just do your best! It won’t matter in a moment.

Cross the ropes in the middle and then twist tightly, keeping the cut sides facing up as best you can. Pinch the ends of the ropes.

Form the twisted rope into a coil and tuck the end underneath. Then transfer the bread to a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Cover the bread with a clean towel or lightly with oiled plastic wrap and allow it to rise for 45 minutes to an hour, or until it is noticeably puffy.

While the bread is rising, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Once the bread has risen, remove the towel or plastic wrap, sprinkle with 1 tbsp. sugar, place it in the oven, and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until deep golden brown. Check the bread half-way through baking. If it is browning quickly, tent the loaf with a piece of aluminum foil to prevent over-browning. The internal temperature of the finished loaf should be 190-200 degrees F if you have a thermometer handy.

The bread has a soft, pillowy interior with a crisp crunch on the outside from the sugar on top. It’s not too sweet either, just enough to compliment the spicy notes from the cinnamon. It’s a wonderful accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea.

Sometimes you don’t need a recipe to tell you what to do. Go your own way from time to time and see what happens. Even if the experiment fails spectacularly, it’s giving you information to learn from, and that’s the only way to get good at anything: Learn, learn, learn and grow, grow, grow.

Ciao for now,

Neen

The Perfect Prize: Pan Pizza

28 Aug

It doesn’t take knowing me very long to realize that I’m kind of a nerd, a title I wear with pride. Let’s be real, I went to graduate school for library and information science, so reading and research are my jam. I’d say that a lot of this stems from having parents who read to me and who encouraged me to read from a young age.

One of the perks of being a kid who already LOVED to read was Book It!, a program that Pizza Hut has been running since 1984 to promote literacy. When I was a kid, you’d receive a badge and for every book you read, you’d get a sticker to put on it. Once it was full, you could present the completed badge at a Pizza Hut and get a free personal pan pizza. And man, was that an awesome reward in my mind. I loved those little pan pizzas. They were thick, super cheesy, and had awesome crispy edges from the cast iron pans they were baked in. I remember my cousins and I nearly emptying the shakers of parmesan cheese onto our pizzas and gleefully devouring them as we contemplated how to convince our parents to give us more quarters for the arcade machines in the front of the restaurant.

Adult-me still loves books (especially cookbooks!) and definitely still loves pizza. But I have my own beloved cast iron pan now, and my love of reading and research have most certainly led me to learn how to make that cheesy, chewy, crispy delight right in my own kitchen. And with a husband who has an extensive collection of video games, I don’t even need quarters to play games while I wait for my pizza.

Want to make one? Here’s how!

Pan Pizza

Dough:

  • 1 ¾ – 2 cups bread flour
  • ¾ cup warm (110-115 degrees F) water, divided
  • 2 ¼ tsp. active dry yeast
  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt

Sauce:

  • One 15 oz. can tomato sauce
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tsp. dried herbs (I like a mix of parsley, oregano, and basil)

Toppings:

  • 9 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
  • Whatever you like on your pizza!

Pan:

  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 8-10 in. cast iron skillet

Begin by making the pizza dough.

Combine 1 tbsp. of the flour, ¼ cup of the water, and the yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer and let sit for about 5 minutes, or until foamy.

Add the remaining 1/2 cup water, 2 tsp. olive oil, and salt and stir to combine.

Slowly add the flour ½ cup at a time until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic.

Roll into a tight ball and then place in an oiled bowl, turning to coat in the oil.

Cover the bowl with a clean towel or loosely with plastic wrap and place in a warm area until the dough ball doubles in size. It will take about an hour.

Pour 2 tbsp. of olive oil into the cast iron pan. Place the risen dough on top and then stretch it to the edges of the pan. Cover the pan with a clean towel or loosely with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise for 2 hours.

While the dough is rising, prepare the sauce. Combine all of the ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-low heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 550 degrees F.

Lightly press down on the dough in the pan to remove any large air bubbles, and then spread the sauce on top, going all the way to the edges.

Top with the cheese and any other toppings you might wish to add.

Bake the pizza for 15 minutes and then carefully remove from the oven and then cook on the stove top over high heat for 1 minute.

Just look at that cheesy goodness:

To remove the pizza from the pan, run a knife or palette knife around the edges, and then use a large palette knife, tongs, or a spatula to lever it out of the pan and onto a cutting board.

Allow the pizza to rest for 2-3 minutes before slicing.

The crust is thick and chewy with crisp edges from the olive oil and high heat, and the cheese is beautifully broiled on top and gooey underneath. It’s a little decadent and a LOT delicious.

It just goes to show that if you bury your nose in a cookbook (or many), you too can always relish the rewards of reading.

Ciao for now,

Neen

A Curious Confection: St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake

11 Jul

I’m always excited when I discover a dish I have never heard of that combines many of the textures and flavors I love. This one was actually brought to my attention a few years ago by a dear friend who asked for a St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake for his birthday, and I instantly fell in love with the concept the first time I made it. A soft, lightly sweet yeast-risen cake topped with a thick layer of sugar and butter that bakes up with a crisp crackly top like crème brûlée and a gooey layer beneath that melts on the tongue like cotton candy. Part confection, part cake, part bread, all amazing.

And while it takes a few hours to make, don’t be intimidated. The vast majority of it is just waiting for that cake dough to sloooooowly rise in the pan. The other key component here is to make sure your butter and eggs have a chance to come to room temperature before starting. Your results will be far more consistent.

St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake

Cake:

  • 3 tbsp. milk
  • 1 3/4 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 large egg, room temperature
  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

Topping:

  • 3 tbsp. + 1 tsp. light corn syrup
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 12 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup plus 3 tbsp. all-purpose flour

Have ready an ungreased 9×13 in. baking dish. I would recommend glass or ceramic as the edges of the cake will get quite dark when baked in a metal pan.

In a small saucepan, combine the milk with 2 tbsp. of water and heat until between 110-115 degrees F. Remove from the heat, whisk in the yeast, and set aside. The mixture will foam, but just slightly.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or with a hand mixer, cream butter, sugar, and salt. Scrape down sides of bowl and beat in the egg.

Alternately add flour and the milk mixture, scraping down sides of bowl between each addition.

Beat dough on medium speed until it forms a smooth mass and pulls away from sides of bowl, 4-5 minutes.

Press dough into the baking dish in an even layer.

Cover with plastic wrap or a clean towel. Allow to rise until doubled, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F while you prepare the topping.

In a small bowl, mix the corn syrup with 2 tbsp. of water and the vanilla extract.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or with a hand mixer, cream butter, sugar, and salt until light and fluffy, 3-5 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat in the egg until well combined.

Alternately add flour and the corn syrup/vanilla mixture, scraping down sides of bowl between additions.

Use an ice cream or cookie scoop to spoon the topping in large dollops over the risen cake, then use a spatula (a small offset works really well here) to gently spread it in an even layer.

Bake for 35-40 minutes. The finished cake will be golden brown on top, but still liquid in center when done.

Allow to cool in pan before cutting into squares. Sprinkle lightly with powdered sugar to serve.

The combination of textures is outrageously good here. Soft cake and a gooey-crisp-confection-like topping sure to make you question why on earth you’ve never heard of St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake before right this moment.

Well if you have, you’re one of the lucky ones. And I hope that now you’ll try to make one too!

Trust me, it’s worth the time spent.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Back to Bread Baking: Rosemary Asiago Focaccia

7 Jun

So, it’s been a very strange two months.

The first week of April, I woke up suddenly with back pain so excruciating, Joe and I had to cancel our annual trip to Boston for PAX East. Things deteriorated from there. My joints swelled randomly and massively, there were weeks at a time when I could not walk, and I was in constant, excruciating pain. After a long two months of MRIs, x-rays, labs, and doctor appointments, I was finally diagnosed last week with rheumatoid arthritis. While things haven’t improved greatly (yet), I am much more comfortable and have a treatment plan to move forward.

Needless to say, I wasn’t doing much cooking. The last couple of weeks I’ve had a little more energy, my hands hurt a little less, and I have started to cook some meals and get back to baking. I’ve been going for a lot of comfort foods like meatloaf, soups, and homemade pasta. But what really feels like home to me is baking bread. So when my rosemary plant decided to offer this…

I knew a really good focaccia was on the way.

Let’s get back in the kitchen together!

Rosemary Asiago Focaccia

Bread:
2 tsp. active dry yeast
1 cup warm water (110-115 degrees F)
2 tbsp. sugar
3 1/2 to 4 cups bread flour
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tbsp. fresh rosemary, chopped
1.5 oz. finely grated asiago cheese

Toppings:
2 tsp. fresh rosemary, chopped
1 oz. coarsely grated asiago cheese

Dissolve the salt in 2 tbsp. of water and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the yeast, sugar, and water, and let stand until foamy, 5-10 min.

Turn the mixer on low speed and slowly add 3 1/2 cups of flour to the bowl. Add the salt water and olive oil, and once incorporated, add the chopped rosemary and finely grated asiago cheese.

Once the dough comes together, turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. (You can also knead this in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, I just enjoy doing it by hand.) Add flour as needed if the dough is sticky.

Form the dough into a ball and transfer to an oiled bowl, tossing to coat in the oil. Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap or a towel and allow the dough to rise until doubled in size, about 45 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F and adjust a rack to the lower third of the oven.

Lightly oil a baking sheet and turn the risen dough out onto it. Gently stretch the dough into an oblong shape about ½ in. thick.

Let rest, uncovered, for 15 minutes.

Gently dimple the dough with your fingertips. Brush the surface of the dough with olive oil, and then sprinkle on the coarsely grated asiago cheese and chopped rosemary.

Bake the focaccia for 13-15 minutes or until golden brown all over. Allow it to rest at least 15 minutes before slicing.

This bread reheats especially well in the toaster or conventional oven (if you don’t finish it all in one day!)

While I often find the road ahead daunting and uncertain, I am lucky to be surrounded by supportive people, and have hobbies like cooking and yoga that ground me and offer me a meditative space. And I’ll keep writing to you here as often as I can, because food is meant to be shared and I will always be happy to share with you.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Game Night Snacks: Pepperoni and Cheese Swirl Rolls

17 May

I had some pizza dough in the fridge recently that I needed to use and it got me thinking about creating a savory version of the Cinnamon Rosettes on this blog. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are also going on and the Pens are in the Eastern Conference Finals, so I’ve also got stadium snacks, bar food, and Pittsburgh on the brain. That led me to one natural conclusion. Let’s flip the script for…

Pepperoni and Cheese Swirl Rolls

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. pizza dough, homemade or store-bought. Recipe here!
  • 12-15 slices pepperoni
  • 4 oz. shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1 oz. pecorino romano cheese
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • ½ tsp dried thyme
  • ½ tsp. dried basil
  • ½ tsp. dried oregano
  • ½ tsp. garlic powder
  • Optional: ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper

Method

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin.

Roll out the pizza dough into a rectangle about 12 x 15 in.

Melt the butter with the herbs and spices, and then brush onto the pizza dough, leaving a small seam at the bottom.

Layer on the mozzarella cheese and most of the pecorino romano cheese (reserve some for the tops of the rolls).

Add a layer of pepperoni.

Roll the pizza dough toward you slowly, jellyroll style, and pinch the edges together to seal.

Place the roll seam side down on a cutting board and slice into 12 equal pieces.

Put each roll into a muffin tin cup and then sprinkle additional pecorino romano cheese on top.

Bake 25-27 minutes or until golden brown on top. Move the rolls to a wire cooling rack and serve warm with marinara sauce for dipping.

These are really delicious the day they are made, but they also reheat well. Just put them back in a 350 degree oven for 5-7 minutes.

Ciao for now (and let’s go Pens!),

Neen

Crispy, Chewy Thin Crust Pizza

20 Sep

I love all kinds of pizza. Thick squares covered in crushed tomatoes and romano cheese, thin floppy slices oozing with mozzarella, deep dish pieces, and yes, the slightly charred crispy Neapolitan-style pies.

My better half like his pizzas thin and crispy. I’ve spent YEARS cooking thin crust pizzas in my slightly under-powered oven and for a long time just wasn’t getting the result I wanted. Okay, sure, you can preheat a pizza stone in your oven for a while and probably get a pie that’s crisp and chewy, but let’s be realistic: Who has time to do that?

No, the real secret to a perfect crust, even for bread, is airflow. Yes, I defy all of you pizza stone experts, because unless you’ve got my dad’s fires-from-hell brick oven, there is a better, easier way to get the perfect pizza or bread crust at home.

First let’s deal with the dough itself. This recipe is an amalgamation of at least four other people’s recipes, but it is velvety, easy to work with dough with a beautiful flavor.

Perfect Pizza Dough (for one 16 in. pizza or two smaller pizzas)

  • 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 1 tbsp. salt dissolved in 2 tbsp. warm water
  • 2 ¼ tsp. active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (about 110-115 degrees)
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

Combine the water, sugar, and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and let it sit until the mixture is very foamy, about 5 minutes.

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Add the flour to the yeast mixture, and then add the salt water. Finally, gently stream in the olive oil.

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Switch the paddle for a dough hook and knead until the dough is soft, smooth and pliable. I prefer to do this by hand and it takes about 10 minutes. Once you have a smooth dough, roll it into a tight ball.

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Oil a clean bowl and toss the dough ball to coat. Then cover the bowl lightly with plastic wrap, leave it in a warm spot, and allow the dough to rise until doubled in size, about one hour.

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After it has risen, gently punch the dough down and it is ready to use. Or store it in the refrigerator covered for up to a few days.

To bake, preheat an oven to 450 degrees F.

NOW, remember what I said earlier about airflow? You do not need an expensive pizza stone or a bunch of bricks on your oven rack, you need this:

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This is a 16 in. pizza screen, but they come in all sizes. It cost about $10. This is how we achieve a golden brown and crisp bottom with a nice, chewy interior.

Lightly oil the pan and then oil your hands. Stretch the pizza dough across the screen until it is even, then brush the surface with olive oil and top as desired. This is a classic marinara and whole milk mozzarella pie.

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Place the screen on the bottom rack of your oven and bake for about 12-13 minutes. Check it at 12, because the bottom can start to char quickly!

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Give the pizza a minute or two to cool, and then easily slide it off of the screen and on to your cutting board for slicing.


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Give this method a try on your next pie. You won’t be disappointed!

Ciao for now,

Neen