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Roast Chicken and Onion Jam Panini with Sweet Potato Fries

There’s been a joyous new addition to my family! She doesn’t even have a name yet, but she’s already brought so much love and happiness into our lives. And quesadillas. She’s brought a lot of those, too.


Meet my new baby!

That’s right! I have a precious new Cuisinart panini press! And I got her for free! Well, sort of. My local grocery store has been running a promotion where you get a point for every $10 you spend on groceries. You can then use points to “purchase” an array of Cuisinart appliances. My little panini press here cost 100 points, or (wince!) $1,000 worth of groceries. Okay, okay, so obtaining her was a bittersweet accomplishment. Nevertheless, I was as excited as a bunny eatin’ a banana! The cashier politely listened to me ramble about all the panini I planned to make as I scooped my new appliance up to bring her home. Since then, there’s been a whole lotta pressin’ going on!

While searching around enthusiastically for panini recipes, I came upon a lovely blog: Panini Happy. A whole blog entirely devoted to using my new favorite kitchen gadget! I got so excited paging through the blog that I planned a whole dinner around panini! On the menu was a succulent Roast Chicken and Onion Jam Panini, a side of Sweet Potato Fries with Basil Salt and Garlic Mayonnaise, and a comforting side of Oven-Baked Macaroni and Cheese.

The panini was a synergy of gorgeous materials: sourdough bread, freshly roasted chicken, Gruyère, fresh thyme, garlic mayonnaise, and (drum roll please) ONION JAM. Panini Happy is where I met this Condiment of Condiments. Oh man, y’all, this stuff is good. Sweet caramelized onion, roasted garlic, reduced balsamic vinegar . . . it’s the perfect, hearty, luscious spread to drench your panini in. And drench we did!

Onion Jam



Recipe by: Panini Happy
Yields: ~3/4 cup of onion jam

Ingredients:
3 large sweet onions
2 heads garlic, roasted*
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Directions:
Squeeze roasted garlic cloves unto a small plate. Set aside. Cut onions in half lengthwise; peel. Cut off ends; cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch thick pieces.

Coat a 13″ skillet with cooking spray, and set over medium heat. Add onions, and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and translucent, about 15 minutes.

Add sugars; re-cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are golden, 20 – 30 minutes.

Add 1/4 cup water and stir. Cover and cook until dark brown, 20 -30 minutes.

Add balsamic vinegar, roasted garlic cloves, and another 1/4 cup water. Continue cooking until liquid has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl to cool. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
*See Elise’s helpful guide to roasting garlic on Simply Recipes

This easy roasted chicken breast was a new recipe for me, which I now adore. It’s simpler than roasting a full bird, but still produces juicy meat with a nice crispy skin. Easy as pie, especially for chicken you’re about to slice up onto a sandwich. Alternatively, you could pick up a rotisserie chicken at the grocer and slice some meat off the already-prepared bird for your panini. But then you don’t get to pull this out of the oven:

All that was left once my onion jam was prepared and my chicken had been roasted was to assemble my panini.

Roast Chicken and Onion Jam Panini



Recipe by: Panini Happy, adapted

Ingredients:
Onion jam (see recipe above)
Roasted chicken (see recipe above), carved
Gruyère cheese, sliced
fresh thyme to taste
garlic mayonnaise (see recipe below, with sweet potato fries)
olive oil

Assembling the Panini:

1. Prepare onion jam (can be completed in advance).
2. Prepare roast chicken (can be completed in advance).
3. Preheat closed panini press to medium.
4. Brush one side of a slice of sourdough with olive oil and placed it on a preheated panini press. Assemble materials on top: slather on garlic mayonnaise, layer slices of cheese, slices of roasted chicken, a sprinkle of thyme, and heaping spoonfuls of onion jam. Place second slice of oiled bread on top, oil side up.
5. Using gentle pressure, press sandwich and hold for about 3 minutes, or until bread is toasted with grill marks and ingredients are heated through. Slice in half and enjoy immediately.

Finding the perfect side items to accompany the perfect panini was quite a task. The comforting, creamy side items I’d been craving throughout the cold, rainy weeks of November didn’t seem to “fit” next to my hip panini, but typical light sandwich fare didn’t appeal to me. So I compromised and made both! I baked a pan of my beloved Oven-Baked Macaroni and Cheese, but also crisped up some delicious (and more appropriate) sweet potato fries. Giada DiLaurentis’s sweet potato fries are my favorite; they’re sprinkled with fresh basil and kosher salt, and dipped in a tangy garlic mayonnaise (the same garlic mayonnaise, by the way, that I slathered on my sandwich). I’ve loved these sweet potato fries since I took my very first bite of them months ago. I cut mine thick, but you can slice them thinner for a crispier fry.

Sweet Potato Fries with Basil Salt and Garlic Mayonnaise



Recipe by: Giada DiLaurentis
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients:
5 sweet potatoes, cut into about 1 by 5-inch “fries”*
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup mayonnaise
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
*Note: I usually make this recipe in batches of 1-2 potatoes at a time, and it’s perfect for 1-2 people. I keep the garlic mayonnaise recipe the same and have extra throughout the week for a sandwich spread.

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Place the sweet potato “fries” on a foil-lined baking sheet and toss with the olive oil. Bake until golden, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile combine the basil, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. In another small bowl combine the mayonnaise, garlic, and lemon juice, and stir to combine. When the sweet potato fries come out of the oven, sprinkle with the basil salt. Serve with the garlic mayonnaise alongside for dipping.

Even if you don’t have your own panini press, I hope you’ll get out a regular ol’ skillet and grill up some cheesy, onion jammy sandwiches — and don’t forget the delicious sides! Oh, and one last thing . . . what do you think I should name my new gadget?


Roasted garlic and delicious finished onion jam.



Sweet potato fries cooking and panini grilling!



Enjoy!


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Cannoli

If there were ever a hard month to work a Daring Bakers challenge into the schedule, November would be it! This past week has been filled to the brim with cooking pies, cakes, enchiladas (no one ever said I was normal). And I was only responsible for a small part of my family’s Thanksgiving meal — I don’t know how folks responsible for the entire dinner manage to get everything finished!

Speaking of Thanksgiving, it was grand — lovely food and a lovely time with family. The yeast rolls, as always, were my favorite part, but the turkey made a fine showing:


The juicy stuffed bird my parents made. That’s my mother’s china in the background, which I promised her I would not sell on eBay after she dies (isn’t this the sort of discussion everyone has over Thanksgiving dinner?)

Back to the Daring Bakers Challenge, though!

The November 2009 Daring Bakers Challenge was chosen and hosted by Lisa Michele of Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. She chose the Italian Pastry, Cannolo (Cannoli is plural), using the cookbooks Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and The Sopranos Family Cookbook by Allen Rucker; recipes by Michelle Scicolone, as ingredient/direction guides. She added her own modifications/changes, so the recipe is not 100% verbatim from either book.

What’s funny about this challenge is that just a couple of days prior to Lisa’s announcement, I was walking through the grocery store pondering cooking techniques I wanted to try. I settled on deep frying as one thing that still really mystified me. When this challenge was issued, it just confirmed for me what I’ve remarked every month about the Daring Bakers; that is, that the group helps me stretch my skills with each new “daring” recipe.

I enthusiastically shopped around online for some cannoli forms, though other daring bakers got inventive with tinfoil. Look, he even has a little blueprint drawn out! Leave it to an engineer, right? Other than the forms, I was all set: big heavy saucepan, candy/fry thermometer, big round cookie cutter, and bottle after bottle of vegetable oil.

Turns out cannoli are quite simple! After mixing and chilling the dough, I rolled it out (springy, but otherwise nice to work with), cut some circles, and rolled them out until they were extremely thin. While my first shell turned out a little dark (you really have to remove them a touch before you think they’re done), overall, they were a success!


Three topping selections and some chocolate-dipped edges!

I filled my shells three ways. All started with the same traditional sweetened ricotta base, but one group was then covered in chopped hazelnuts and hunks of dark Ghirardelli chocolate. The next batch was covered with chopped peanuts and Reese’s Peanut Butter Chips. Finally, the last group of cannoli were coated with a big handful of Hershey’s Cinnamon Chips. These were my favorite; the cinnamon chips amplified the subtle cinnamon flavor of the shells. No matter which way we ate them, though, they were delectable little three-bite desserts, with the perfect ratio of crunch to cream.

No need to be intimidated by this Daring Bakers Challenge. While it pushed me out of my comfort zone, it was relatively simple and definitely a lot of fun. Thanks to Lisa for a delicious mission!


My favorite topping: cinnamon chips!

Cannoli



Recipe by: adapted from Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, Allen Rucker, Michelle Scicolone
Yields: 22-24 4″ cannoli
Printable version of this recipe

Cannoli Shells Ingredients:
2 cups (250 grams/8.82 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons(28 grams/1 ounce) sugar
1 teaspoon (5 grams/0.06 ounces) unsweetened baking cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon (1.15 grams/0.04 ounces) ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon (approx. 3 grams/0.11 ounces) salt
3 tablespoons (42 grams/1.5 ounces) vegetable or olive oil
1 teaspoon (5 grams/0.18 ounces) white wine vinegar
Approximately 1/2 cup (approx. 59 grams/approx. 4 fluid ounces/approx. 125 ml) sweet Marsala or any white or red wine you have on hand (I used Sauvignon Blanc)
1 large egg, separated (you will need the egg white but not the yolk)
Vegetable or any neutral oil for frying – about 2 quarts (8 cups/approx. 2 litres)
1/2 cup (approx. 62 grams/2 ounces) toasted, chopped pistachio nuts, mini chocolate chips/grated chocolate and/or candied or plain zests, fruits etc.. for garnish
Confectioners’ sugar
*Note – If you want a chocolate cannoli dough, substitute a few tablespoons of the flour (about 25%) with a few tablespoons of dark, unsweetened cocoa powder (Dutch process) and a little more wine until you have a workable dough (Thanks to Audax Artifex).

Cannoli Filling Ingredients:
2 lbs (approx. 3.5 cups/approx. 1 kg/32 ounces) ricotta cheese, drained
1 2/3 cups cup (160 grams/6 ounces) confectioner’s sugar, (more or less, depending on how sweet you want it), sifted
1/2 teaspoon (1.15 grams/0.04 ounces) ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon (4 grams/0.15 ounces) pure vanilla extract or the beans from one vanilla bean
3 tablespoons (approx. 28 grams/approx. 1 ounce) finely chopped good quality chocolate of your choice
2 tablespoons (12 grams/0.42 ounces) of finely chopped, candied orange peel, or the grated zest of one small to medium orange
3 tablespoons (23 grams/0.81 ounce) toasted, finely chopped pistachios
*Note – If you want chocolate ricotta filling, add a few tablespoons of dark, unsweetened cocoa powder to the above recipe, and thin it out with a few drops of warm water if too thick to pipe.

DIRECTIONS FOR SHELLS:
1. In the bowl of an electric stand mixer or food processor, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa, cinnamon, and salt. Stir in the oil, vinegar, and enough of the wine to make a soft dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and well blended, about 2 minutes. Shape the dough into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest in the fridge from 2 hours to overnight.

2. Cut the dough into two pieces. Keep the remaining dough covered while you work. Lightly flour a large cutting or pastry board and roll the dough until super thin, about 1/16 to 1/8” thick (An area of about 13 inches by 18 inches should give you that). Cut out 3 to 5-inch circles (3-inch – small/medium; 4-inch – medium/large; 5-inch;- large. Your choice). Roll the cut out circle into an oval, rolling it larger and thinner if it’s shrunk a little.

3 Oil the outside of the cannoli tubes (You only have to do this once, as the oil from the deep fry will keep them well, uhh, oiled..lol). Roll a dough oval from the long side (If square, position like a diamond, and place tube/form on the corner closest to you, then roll) around each tube/form and dab a little egg white on the dough where the edges overlap. (Avoid getting egg white on the tube, or the pastry will stick to it.) Press well to seal. Set aside to let the egg white seal dry a little.

4. In a deep heavy saucepan, pour enough oil to reach a depth of 3 inches, or if using an electric deep-fryer, follow the manufacturer’s directions. Heat the oil to 375°F (190 °C) on a deep fry thermometer, or until a small piece of the dough or bread cube placed in the oil sizzles and browns in 1 minute. Have ready a tray or sheet pan lined with paper towels or paper bags.

5. Carefully lower a few of the cannoli tubes into the hot oil. Do not crowd the pan. Fry the shells until golden, about 2 minutes, turning them so that they brown evenly.

8. Lift a cannoli tube with a wire skimmer or large slotted spoon, out of the oil. Using tongs, grasp the cannoli tube at one end. Very carefully remove the cannoli tube with the open sides straight up and down so that the oil flows back into the pan. Place the tube on paper towels or bags to drain. Repeat with the remaining tubes. While they are still hot, grasp the tubes with a potholder and pull the cannoli shells off the tubes with a pair of tongs, or with your hand protected by an oven mitt or towel. Let the shells cool completely on the paper towels. Place shells on cooling rack until ready to fill.

9. Repeat making and frying the shells with the remaining dough. If you are reusing the cannoli tubes, let them cool before wrapping them in the dough.

DIRECTIONS FOR FILLING:
1. Line a strainer with cheesecloth. Place the ricotta in the strainer over a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap and a towel. Weight it down with a heavy can, and let the ricotta drain in the refrigerator for several hours to overnight.

2. In a bowl with electric mixer, beat ricotta until smooth and creamy. Beat in confectioner’s sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and blend until smooth. Transfer to another bowl and stir in chocolate, zest and nuts. Chill until firm.(The filling can be made up to 24 hours prior to filling the shells. Just cover and keep refrigerated).

ASSEMBLE THE CANNOLI:
1. When ready to serve..fill a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain or star tip, or a ziplock bag, with the ricotta cream. If using a ziplock bag, cut about 1/2 inch off one corner. Insert the tip in the cannoli shell and squeeze gently until the shell is half filled. Turn the shell and fill the other side. You can also use a teaspoon to do this, although it’s messier and will take longer.

2. Press or dip cannoli in chopped pistachios, grated chocolate/mini chocolate chips, candied fruit or zest into the cream at each end. Dust with confectioner’s sugar and/or drizzles of melted chocolate if desired.

LISA’S TIPS AND NOTES:
– Dough must be stiff and well kneaded
– Rolling the dough to paper thinness, using either a rolling pin or pasta machine, is very important. If the dough is not rolled thin enough, it will not blister, and good cannoli should have a blistered surface.
– Initially, this dough is VERY stubborn, but keep rolling, it eventually gives in. Before cutting the shapes, let the dough rest a bit, covered, as it tends to spring back into a smaller shapes once cut. Then again, you can also roll circles larger after they’re cut, and/or into ovals, which gives you more space for filling.
– Your basic set of round cutters usually doesn’t contain a 5-inch cutter. Try a plastic container top, bowl etc, or just roll each circle to 5 inches. There will always be something in your kitchen that’s round and 5-inches if you want large cannoli.
– Oil should be at least 3 inches deep and hot – 360°F-375°F, or you’ll end up with greasy shells. I prefer 350°F – 360°F because I felt the shells darkened too quickly at 375°F.
– If using the cannoli forms, when you drop the dough on the form into the oil, they tend to sink to the bottom, resulting in one side darkening more. Use a slotted spoon or skimmer to gently lift and roll them while frying.
– DO NOT crowd the pan. Cannoli should be fried 2-4 at a time, depending on the width of your saucepan or deep fryer. Turn them once, and lift them out gently with a slotted spoon/wire skimmer and tongs. Just use a wire strainer or slotted spoon for flat cannoli shapes.
– When the cannoli turns light brown – uniform in color, watch it closely or remove it. If it’s already a deep brown when you remove it, you might end up with a really dark or slightly burnt shell.
– Depending on how much scrap you have left after cutting out all of your cannoli shapes, you can either fry them up and sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar for a crispy treat, or let the scraps rest under plastic wrap and a towel, then re-roll and cut more cannoli shapes.
– Push forms out of cannoli very gently, being careful not to break the shells as they are very delicate. DO NOT let the cannoli cool on the form, or you may never get it off without it breaking. Try to take it off while still hot. Hold it with a cloth in the center, and push the form out with a butter knife or the back of a spoon.
– When adding the confectioner’s sugar to the filling, TASTE. You may like it sweeter than what the recipe calls for, or less sweet, so add in increments.
– Fill cannoli right before serving! If you fill them an hour or so prior, you’ll end up with soggy cannoli shells.
– If you want to prepare the shells ahead of time, store them in an airtight container, then re-crisp in a 350°F (176 °C) oven for a few minutes, before filling.
– Practice makes perfect. My first batch of shells came out less than spectacular, and that’s an understatement. As you go along, you’ll see what will make them more aesthetically pleasing, and adjust accordingly when rolling. My next several batches turned out great. Don’t give up!!


Cutting out cannoli and getting ready to fry.



My first little cannoli! Then all the cannoli ready for dipping and filling.


Don’t forget to check out the Daring Bakers blogroll for other fantastic cannoli!

Creamy Chicken and Green Chile Enchiladas with Mexican Sausage Rice

I guess this is supposed to be a Thanksgiving post, but . . . it’s not. I had the best intentions! See, there was major pot luckage scheduled for tonight: a Thanksgiving potluck with my Sunday school class including all of the traditional turkey day fixins. I tried to sign up to bring a dessert, but wouldn’t you know, they started the sign-up sheet on the other end of the class and three people tackled dessert before it got to me. I signed up for sweet potatoes instead and started making great plans: I was going to make my mom’s marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, and for anyone crazy enough not to love those, Ezra Pound Cake‘s Rosemary Roasted Sweet Potatoes. I was prepared! And then . . . suddenly . . . I was sick. SICK. I could whine about this for paragraphs, but suffice it to say, I have been one sore-nosed, tickly-throated, marathon-sneezing unhappy camper. So . . . I raised the white flag and canceled my RSVP to the potluck.

Something did raise my spirits, though. Something decidedly un-Thanksgiving-dinneresque. Barbara Bakes posted a provocative picture of a cheesy, saucy enchilada that revved up such a strong craving that Barbara might have almost acquired a new roommate. Or at least nightly dinner guest. I started making new plans. While I may have been too sniffly for a large festive gathering, I could at least invite Mike over for a Mexican feast: Creamy Chicken and Green Chile Enchiladas with Mexican Sausage Rice.

These enchiladas are pure comfort food. They’re gooey with a sumptuous, tangy, creamy, salsa verde-based sauce. Mike and I are thrilled to have over half a pan to devour as leftovers! They’re also so simple to make. I used a store-bought rotisserie chicken instead of roasting my own, cutting down on the cooking time (cut me some slack — or I’ll start whining again). These amazing enchiladas are definitely on the “make again” list.

The Mexican Sausage Rice was also good, though perhaps it needed a little spice punch. Right off the stove it seemed a bit mellow in flavor, but it did begin to taste bolder as the flavors were allowed to meld. I’m looking forward to eating some heaping scoops of it with lunch tomorrow after it’s been refrigerated overnight. The corn adds the perfect sweetness to contrast the sausage, chili powder, and chiles. You should also know that there’s a whole truckload of optional add-ons at the end of the recipe (see below) that I forgot to add — toasted pumpkin seeds, cheese, lime — all of which might’ve brightened the flavor. I’ll have to give them a try tomorrow.

Where’s the dessert, you ask? You’ll have to wait for that one! You see, I didn’t just lie in bed and whine this morning (that was only the first couple of hours). I also completed my November Daring Bakers challenge, which Mike and I enjoyed after our Mexican feast. Dessert definitely derailed the nationality of our meal, but I can’t say another word about it. Check back in soon to see! In the meantime, go assemble some of these simple, rich, comforting, cheesy enchiladas.

Creamy Chicken and Green Chile Enchiladas



Recipe by: Dinners for a Year and Beyond
Yields: about 12 enchiladas

Ingredients:
4 bone-in chicken breasts or purchased already cooked rotisserie chicken
olive oil
salt
pepper
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon cumin
1/3 cup flour
2 cups chicken stock
1 cup salsa verde
1/2 cup light sour cream
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
12 6-inch corn tortillas (I used flour tortillas)
3 cups shredded light Mexican blend cheese

Directions: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place chicken on a large baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast in oven for about 40 – 50 minutes or until the internal temperature is about 170 degrees. Remove from oven and let cool. When cool enough to handle, shred chicken into bite-sized pieces and place in a bowl. Set aside.

Meanwhile, heat a large saucepan to medium high and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the onions. Saute for 8 – 10 minutes or until the onions are lightly browned. Add the garlic and cumin and saute for an additional minute. Stir in the flour until blended and cook for a minute. Slowly pour in the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Cook for 2 – 4 minutes or until thickened. Add the salsa verde, sour cream, and cilantro. Stir to combine. Season the creamy green chile sauce with salt and pepper.

Add about 1 cup of the creamy green chile sauce to the shredded chicken and stir to combine.To assemble enchiladas get a large baking dish and spray with cooking spray. Dip a tortilla into the creamy green chile sauce and put it on a cutting board. (You can also put tortillas in the microwave for a few seconds to make them easier to work with.) Put a big scoop of the chicken mixture in the center, sprinkle with a little of the cheese, and roll up the tortilla to enclose the filling. Place the enchilada in the baking dish. Continue to fill all of the tortillas and put them in the baking dish. Pour the remaining creamy green chile sauce over the top and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.

Bake uncovered for about 20 – 25 minutes until bubbly and the cheese is melted. Serve hot with sour cream.

Mexican Sausage Rice
Recipe By: Jimmy Dean
Yields: about 8 cups

Ingredients:
1 pkg. Regular Flavor Jimmy Dean Pork Sausage
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 cup uncooked long grain rice
1 pkg. (10 oz.) frozen whole kernel corn, thawed
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1 can (10 oz.) diced tomatoes & green chilies, with liquid
1-1/2 cups water or chicken stock
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 can (15 oz.) cooked black beans, drained and rinsed
4 thinly sliced green onions (optional)
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted (optional)
sour cream or shredded Cheddar cheese (optional)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro (optional)
1 lime, cut in eighths (optional)

Directions: In a 3 or 4-quart saucepan, cook sausage and onion over medium-high heat, stirring frequently until meat is thoroughly cooked and no longer pink. Add rice, corn, cumin, chili powder, tomatoes & green chiles, water or stock and salt; stir once to mix. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer 25 minutes without stirring. Gently stir in black beans; add green onions if desired. Garnish with any or all optional ingredients.


Rice and enchiladas getting started!


Enchiladas in the oven and finished Mexican Sausage Rice.


Enjoy!


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Freshly Baked Cheese Bread

Every now and then, I’ll stumble upon an opportunity to walk down a silent gravel road or drive through seemingly endless farmland. My heart always feels simultaneously full and a little desperate during these bits of quiet countryside — desperate for what, I’m not sure. Maybe just to spread out a blanket and stay awhile? To escape the scatter and pace of the indoor internet version of life? To hug as many fat farm animals as possible?

I’m pretty sure it’s all of those things rolled into one. My desires seem to be whispering to me: sloooooowww dowwwnnn. Every now and then I’ll whine a bit to Mike about wanting to live on a farm, and he’ll start in about how much work it is, how financially unstable it can be — but I still can’t help running through (tickless, snakeless) fields in my mind.

That’s what farmers do, right? Run through fields? Ah, well, anyway . . .

Another experience recently evoked that desperate/full heart feeling: the rustic, yeasty, floury, humbling, satisfying process of baking fresh bread. I don’t mean a quick-mix bread, though I love those as well; I mean honest-to-goodness yeast fermentation, mixing and kneading with ardor, proofing, baking, tearing, sopping, devouring bread. Cheese bread, to be exact.

My bread fanaticism began when publishers sent me a copy of Andrew Whitley’s new book, Bread Matters: The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own. To be perfectly honest, I waffled for awhile about this book. Did the busy modern cook have time to pour over the 138 pages that precede the first recipe? At one point as I was reading, though, a thought struck me: perhaps I was viewing all of this with my fast-paced lens. Maybe ignoring that urge to slow down and — in this case — enjoy the process of crafting a loaf of bread was compounding the problem. Maybe the busy modern cook would feel a little less like the energizer bunny if he or she watched yeast ferment on the counter for a couple of days. Who knows?

It also became clear that bread is Andrew Whitley’s passion, and here I was, reading through a whole-hearted, sometimes playful, sometimes vehement opus! Within the pages, bread became political capital — something to fight for — as well as a connection to the past and a work of art. This wasn’t just a cookbook; it was a masterpiece of bread!

Politically speaking, Bread Matters is the namesake of Whitley’s organization, which is devoted to changing people’s mindset about bread. It’s a noble mission, considering the dirty economic battle being fought for our allegiance. Society is saturated with advertising offering more more more faster faster faster, as a stroll through any grocery store will confirm. Frozen meals, baking mixes, and preserved foods abound, and healthful foods are only offered insofar as they’re profitable and trendy. While I’m vehemently not a food snob and don’t mind a baking mix here and there, I am incensed by the idea that the food industry is pumping products full of corn and chemicals in order to turn a profit. Conscience has been consumed in capitalist lust. Whitley charges that you should be angry, too, and that, “One way of fighting back is to refuse to buy foods produced in ways we find unacceptable.”

Beyond the political, though, Whitley connected with some powerful inner urge of mine in a section entitled, “The simple life”:

[Artisans] gain satisfaction from intimate contact with the materials of their trade and from direct involvement in the whole process from flour to baked loaf. The feel of soft, warm dough under the hands, the sight of an oven well set with loaves, the beguiling smell of baking bread, the satisfying sound of crackling crusts — all these can be yours when you make your own bread.

While I may not be able to own a farm, I can pick up some pure, natural ingredients and set out to make freshly baked-from-scratch bread. I can be literally in touch with my product from start to finish, control every addition, and enjoy the fruits of my own labor. With this compelling inspiration, I grabbed up Bread Matters to search for my first recipe. The book is physically lovely and almost like a loaf itself, with a smooth cream cover and some heft to it. Two sections of plates show rustic images of various breads. I chose a savory, tangy bread to try first: Cheese Bread.

The process was just as Whitley described: a few minutes of work here and there (he calculates around 30-40 total) punctuated by periods of waiting. In this particular bread, I prepared a sponge that fermented for a couple of days, and then worked that sponge into a basic bread dough. This dough rested a couple of hours before the extra goodies were added to it and it was shaped. After a final proof for the better part of an hour, it was into the oven and out in a flash. I was frustrated at a few points by Whitley’s apparent vagueness (“Proof until well-risen”), and at other points by his apparent nit-pickiness (“bring the final dough to […] around 81°F”), but in the end, everything worked out perfectly. Incidentally, who knew kneading could be so much fun?! Mike snapped this blurry shot of me mid-laugh:

My freshly baked cheese bread was thick and hearty, with the subtle tang of fermentation and the warmth of chili powder and cumin. Mike and I enjoyed it with a pot of steaming chicken and dumplings (which, okay, turned out too salty due to over-reducing the broth — nothing some bread sopping can’t fix!)


Freshly baked cheese bread and steamy chicken and dumplings.

We devoured two entire loaves with dinner, but still had one loaf left over. What did I do with that last loaf after being so charmingly domestic and wholesome throughout the breadmaking process? That’s right, I sliced that baby down the middle, toasted it in some butter, and filled it up with eggs, cheddar cheese, bacon, and some fresh chopped parsley (see? healthy!) Breakfast of champions! No matter what you’re, ahem, planning on doing with your delicious cheese bread, I do hope you’ll give this freshly baked bread a try.




A less wholesome use for baked-from-scratch cheese bread!

Now for the task of summarizing my review of Bread Matters. I wouldn’t have purchased this book had I seen it sitting on a shelf. I’ve never thought of myself as a “bread person,” and thus the subject wouldn’t have caught my eye. There are also only two small selections of plates in the book — a drawback for me, since I love cookbooks with tons of images. That being said, I’m so glad publishers sent it to me for free — so I could review it and tell you that I would’ve been missing out. It’s certainly worth the $23 it’s currently selling for on Amazon, since it’s done much more than provide me with a few bread recipes. It’s really changed my mindset and been a lovely introduction into the bread craft. Because of the thoughtfulness and care with which the book was written, and because of the connection I feel with Whitley’s perspective on baking, I do wholeheartedly recommend Bread Matters.

Book Stats: 373 pages, $34 list price ($23 on Amazon), indexed.
Accessibility: Enough information for a beginning baker; includes sections describing materials required for breadmaking, techniques used in breadmaking, etc.
Examples of Recipes: Olive and Pumpkin Seed Bread, brioche, pains au chocolat, various European festival breads, sourdoughs, ciabatta, crumpets, etc.
Overall Impression: Very thorough and provocative, but I would’ve preferred more photos.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Other Notes: Whitley has a sweet and rather quirky conversational tone, sometimes winding through his recipes with a few tangents here and there (see the recipe below). Throughout the whole book, he passionately demonstrates the depth of knowledge he’s gained in his 25 year breadmaking career.


Same as above, but with the bread torn open so you can see its lovely innards.

Cheese Bread



Recipe from: Bread Matters: The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own
Yields: 3 medium rounds of cheese bread (about 12 servings)

Sponge Ingredients:
1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast*
2/3 cup water (around 68°)
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon stoneground breadmaking whole-wheat or graham flour
*Note: book also includes measurements for fresh yeast.

Basic Bread Dough Ingredients:
1 cup sponge (from above)
1 cup plus 2.5 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon stoneground breadmaking whole-wheat or graham flour
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
scant 1.2 cup water

Cheese Bread Additions:
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup shredded cheese
2.5 cups basic savory bread dough (from above)
beaten egg, to glaze
2/3 grated cheese for topping

Directions:
To make the sponge: Dissolve the yeast in the water. Add the flours and mix to a soft sponge. There is no need to mix this vigorously: gluten development by physical means is irrelevant in dough that is allowed such a long time to ferment because naturally occurring enzymes and acids transform it anyway.

Put the sponge in a bowl with plenty of room for expansion (up to 2 times its volume) and cover with a lid or plastic bag to conserve moisture. Leave it at room temperature to ferment for 16-48 hours. During this time, the sponge will rise up and collapse. The yeast cells will multiply and lactic and acetic acids will begin to develop.

To make basic bread dough from sponge: If the sponge has been in a cool place, you will need to use fairly warm water to bring the final dough to a reasonable temperature of around 81°F (27°C). To work out how hot the water should be, follow the formula on page 68 [of Bread Matters]. For the purposes of this calculation, treat the sponge as part of the flour. Since they are equal weights, you can add their temperatures together and divide by 2 to arrive at an average. NOTE: I thought this would be the undoing of my bread, because all of this temperature business sounds so complicated. I estimated my sponge’s temperature based on room temperature, and estimated the temperature of the water (a little warmer than lukewarm). It worked out fine.

Mix all ingredients together and knead until the dough is stretchy and “silky” (not so easy to detect if you are using a high proportion of whole-wheat flour). Cover and allow to rise for an hour or so.

To make basic bread dough into cheese bread: Stir the spices into the grated cheese and add this to the prepared Basic Savory Bread Dough. Fold the cheese through the dough until it is fairly evenly distributed. You may need to add water if the dough shows signs of tightening. NOTE: I did add a bit.

Divide the dough into 2 equal pieces and mold them into round balls. Give them a minute or two to relax and then, with the palm of your hand, press them down so that they roughly double in diameter. Put these flat disks on a baking sheet lined with nonstick baking parchment, placing them far enough apart so that they will not touch.

With a plastic scraper or the back of a knife, mark the cheese breads with 2 cuts at right angles to make a cross. Simply press down on the dough aiming to cut through almost to the baking sheet but not quite. (If you press too hard and the dough breaks in 2 [or 4], do not worry: it will probably join up again during proofing or baking.)

Brush the visible surface of each bread with a little beaten egg. Divide the remaining shredded cheese and place it as evenly as possible on top of each bread, but do not put it too near the edge. The cheese will partially obscure the cuts made by the scraper, but this does not matter. As the dough proofs, it will spread the cheese out a little.

Proof until well-risen, then bake in a moderate oven (375°F [190°C]) for 15-20 minutes. These breads are small and flat, so the heat will penetrate fairly quickly to the center of the dough. Take care not to let the cheese topping get overcooked; it can change from softly melted to dried and “foxy” in a few minutes.

The deep cross you pressed into the dough should be just visible after baking and the cheese breads should break easily into 4 wedges, which make good soup rolls. NOTE: I’ll say! If you plan to fill a cheese bread, it is best to keep it as one, divide it horizontally, insert the filling and then cut the whole thing into halves or quarters.


Chicken and Dumplings on the stove and bread kneading!


Bread proofing and then baking.


Leftover cheese bread toasting and bacon sizzling in preparation for the breakfast sandwich of all time.


Bake bread! This loaf is getting submitted to YeastSpotting!


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Homemade Puff Pastry and Vol-au-vents

Have you ever pulled something out of the oven and felt like a rock star? Felt giddy and awed at the first bite? Been so incredibly proud of a recipe you were inexplicably able to complete that you thought about framing the resulting photos for your desk at work? Okay, okay, maybe that’s a little much. But all silliness aside, there are turning points in my life as a baker where I feel like I “level up,” or gain a skill or technique that previously seemed too daunting for me to contemplate. This past Daring Bakers challenge was one of those turning points.

The September 2009 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Steph of A Whisk and a Spoon. She chose the French treat, Vols-au-Vent based on the Puff Pastry recipe by Michel Richard from the cookbook Baking With Julia by Dorie Greenspan.


New baking supplies for the challenge.

Vol-au vents are simply cups of puff pastry stuffed with delicious savory or sweet fillings. That part sounds easy. But homemade puff pastry? I have to admit, I was very nervous. The recipe looked especially daunting considering my love-hate relationship with my rolling pin. I think we’ve smoothed things out, but every now and then I still feel like giving him a good whomp against the counter to adjust his attitude. And even apart from rolling pin troubles, puff pastry is just a fickle, time consuming creation. It’s made by enveloping an entire pound of butter (Heyyy, Paula Deen!) in the dough (called a détrempe). Once the butter is wrapped up like a present, you make a series of six “turns” (tri-folds) in the dough, rolling it out between each (and refrigerating often to maintain workability). This website has a useful pictorial of the turning process, but I bet you’d love to see Julia Child and Michel Richard making it in real-time, wouldn’t you? Your wish is my command! Here’s the fun part: once you have all those lovely layers of butter and dough in the oven, the water content of the butter turns into steam, inflating your pastry. If all goes well, you end up with a fluffy, buttery bit of heaven.

After watching the video above several times over, I dragged my load of doubts and worries into the kitchen and set to work with a furrowed brow. My dough seemed too sticky, my butter pounding scared little Byrd to death, and my envelope kept threatening to break and expose my butter. Nevertheless, I trudged on, hoping that somehow, my little pastries would puff their hearts out in the oven. And guess what?

It worked! It worked! It worked! It’s unfortunate (or maybe not, since Mike’s eardrums are probably sore) that you couldn’t hear me shouting those two little words as I leapt around my apartment after taking these out of the oven. It was like magic! Little disks of dough turning into lovely, sophisticated pastries via unseen processes within their layers. And not only were the pastries puffy, they were out of this world delicious. I burned each one of my little fingertips to bits (not to mention my tongue) eating them straight out of the oven. Mike liked them too! Byrd was indifferent.

I chose to stuff my vol-au-vents with both savory and sweet fillings. My savory vol-au-vent was filled with smooth goat cheese mousse with a drizzle of fresh, homemade pesto on top. The pesto was gorgeous — made with toasted pine nuts, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh basil (including some huge sprigs from the garden beside my classroom — did I mention that I love my school?) The tangy goat cheese and rich pesto were such a delicious combination.

Goat Cheese Mousse and Basil Pesto


Recipe By:

Shirl on RecipeZaar (goat cheese mousse)
Elise on Simply Recipes

Yields: About 1/2 cup mousse and 1/2 cup pesto

Goat Cheese Mousse Ingredients:
8 ounces fresh goat cheese
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream, lightly whipped

Basil Pesto Ingredients:
1 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan-Reggiano or Romano cheese
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/6 cup pine nuts, toasted
1.5 medium-sized garlic cloves, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Directions:
To make the mousse, process the goat cheese in a clean food processor until smooth. Add the whipped cream and blend just until incorporated.

To make the pesto, combine the basil and pine nuts in a food processor. Pulse a few times. Add the garlic, pulse a few times more. Slowly add the olive oil in a constant stream while the food processor is on low (if storing, reserve half the oil — see note below). Stop to scrape down the sides of the food processor with a rubber spatula. Add the grated cheese and pulse again until blended. Add a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Note: If storing and not using immediately, reserve half the oil. Place pesto in airtight container and drizzle reserved oil over top. Freeze or refrigerate.

My dessert plate was designed as a walk through the seasons. Spring was represented by Smitten Kitchen’s tangy mango curd, a sweet raspberry, and a dollop of homemade whipped cream. Summer was simple: homemade whipped cream and berries.

Finally, autumn was one of my favorites (in fact, you’ve seen it a few times here recently!): baked peach crisp. I baked some peaches, brown sugar, white sugar, oats, and toasted pecans in a dish before spooning the hot mixture into my puff pastry and (you know what’s coming, right?) topped it with a dollop of whipped cream! Next time I think I’ll add the toasted pecans over top of the peach mixture at the end. All of these dessert vol-au-vents were incredible in their buttery pastry cups, but our favorite by far was the Mango Curd Raspberry Vol-au-vent!


Peach Crisp Vol-au-vent



Raspberries and Cream Vol-au-vent



Mango Curd Raspberry Vol-au-vent

Mango Curd


Recipe By: Smitten Kitchen (mango curd)
Yields: About 1 to 1.5 cups

Ingredients:
1 15-ounce ripe mango, peeled, pitted, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 cup sugar (might reduce this to 1/3 cup next time, to keep the curd more tart)
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Pinch of salt
4 large egg yolks
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Directions:
Puree mango, sugar, lime juice and salt in processor, scraping down sides of work bowl occasionally. Add yolks; puree 15 seconds longer. Strain through sieve set over large metal bowl, pressing on solids with back of spatula to release as much puree as possible. Discard solids in sieve.

Set metal bowl over saucepan of simmering water (do not allow bottom of bowl to touch water); whisk puree until thickened and thermometer registers 170°F., about 10 minutes. Remove from over water. Whisk in butter 1 piece at a time. Cover (place plastic wrap on surface of curd to prevent a skin from forming) and refrigerate overnight. Can freeze for up to 2 months.

I’m grateful for the Daring Bakers for many reasons: the exciting recipes shared, the fantastic friendships made, the gorgeous blogs to visit. For this challenge, though, I especially want to thank Steph and the Daring Bakers for a huge confidence boost! I hope you’ll decide to give puff pastry a try. It’s a manageable beast, and the resulting dough freezes well to use for months to come. Even besides those practicalities, though, it feels like such a satisfying kitchen accomplishment!

Puff Pastry and Vol-au-vents


Recipe By: Baking with Julia by Dorie Greenspan
Yields: Using 1/3 of the dough yields about 9 2-inch vol-au-vents

Ingredients:
2-1/2 cups (12.2 oz/ 354 g) unbleached all-purpose flour
1-1/4 cups (5.0 oz/ 142 g) cake flour
1 tbsp. salt (you can cut this by half for a less salty dough or for sweet preparations)
1-1/4 cups (10 fl oz/ 300 ml) ice water
1 pound (16 oz/ 454 g) very cold unsalted butter

plus extra flour for dusting work surface

Directions:

Mixing the Dough:
Check the capacity of your food processor before you start. If it cannot hold the full quantity of ingredients, make the dough into two batches and combine them.

Put the all-purpose flour, cake flour, and salt in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse a couple of times just to mix. Add the water all at once, pulsing until the dough forms a ball on the blade. The dough will be very moist and pliable and will hold together when squeezed between your fingers. (Actually, it will feel like Play-Doh.)

Remove the dough from the machine, form it into a ball, with a small sharp knife, slash the top in a tic-tac-toe pattern. Wrap the dough in a damp towel and refrigerate for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the butter between 2 sheets of plastic wrap and beat it with a rolling pin until it flattens into a square that’s about 1″ thick. Take care that the butter remains cool and firm: if it has softened or become oily, chill it before continuing.

Incorporating the Butter:
Unwrap the dough and place it on a work surface dusted with all-purpose flour (A cool piece of marble is the ideal surface for puff pastry) with your rolling pin (preferably a French rolling pin without handles), press on the dough to flatten it and then roll it into a 10″ square. Keep the top and bottom of the dough well floured to prevent sticking and lift the dough and move it around frequently. Starting from the center of the square, roll out over each corner to create a thick center pad with “ears,” or flaps.

Place the cold butter in the middle of the dough and fold the ears over the butter, stretching them as needed so that they overlap slightly and encase the butter completely. (If you have to stretch the dough, stretch it from all over; don’t just pull the ends) you should now have a package that is 8″ square.

To make great puff pastry, it is important to keep the dough cold at all times. There are specified times for chilling the dough, but if your room is warm, or you work slowly, or you find that for no particular reason the butter starts to ooze out of the pastry, cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate it . You can stop at any point in the process and continue at your convenience or when the dough is properly chilled.

Making the Turns:
Gently but firmly press the rolling pin against the top and bottom edges of the square (this will help keep it square). Then, keeping the work surface and the top of the dough well floured to prevent sticking, roll the dough into a rectangle that is three times as long as the square you started with, about 24″ (don’t worry about the width of the rectangle: if you get the 24″, everything else will work itself out.) With this first roll, it is particularly important that the butter be rolled evenly along the length and width of the rectangle; check when you start rolling that the butter is moving along well, and roll a bit harder or more evenly, if necessary, to get a smooth, even dough-butter sandwich (use your arm-strength!).

With a pastry brush, brush off the excess flour from the top of the dough, and fold the rectangle up from the bottom and down from the top in thirds, like a business letter, brushing off the excess flour. You have completed one turn.

Rotate the dough so that the closed fold is to your left, like the spine of a book. Repeat the rolling and folding process, rolling the dough to a length of 24″ and then folding it in thirds. This is the second turn.

Chilling the Dough:
If the dough is still cool and no butter is oozing out, you can give the dough another two turns now. If the condition of the dough is iffy, wrap it in plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes. Each time you refrigerate the dough, mark the number of turns you’ve completed by indenting the dough with your fingertips. It is best to refrigerate the dough for 30 to 60 minutes between each set of two turns.

The total number of turns needed is six. If you prefer, you can give the dough just four turns now, chill it overnight, and do the last two turns the next day. Puff pastry is extremely flexible in this regard. However, no matter how you arrange your schedule, you should plan to chill the dough for at least an hour before cutting or shaping it.

Steph’s extra tips:

  • While this is not included in the original recipe we are using (and I did not do this in my own trials), many puff pastry recipes use a teaspoon or two of white vinegar or lemon juice, added to the ice water, in the détrempe dough. This adds acidity, which relaxes the gluten in the dough by breaking down the proteins, making rolling easier. You are welcome to try this if you wish.
  • Keep things cool by using the refrigerator as your friend! If you see any butter starting to leak through the dough during the turning process, rub a little flour on the exposed dough and chill straight away. Although you should certainly chill the dough for 30 to 60 minutes between each set of two turns, if you feel the dough getting to soft or hard to work with at any point, pop in the fridge for a rest.
  • Not to sound contradictory, but if you chill your paton longer than the recommended time between turns, the butter can firm up too much. If this seems to be the case, I advise letting it sit at room temperature for 5-10 minutes to give it a chance to soften before proceeding to roll. You don’t want the hard butter to separate into chuncks or break through the dough…you want it to roll evenly, in a continuous layer.
  • Roll the puff pastry gently but firmly, and don’t roll your pin over the edges, which will prevent them from rising properly. Don’t roll your puff thinner than about about 1/8 to 1/4-inch (3-6 mm) thick, or you will not get the rise you are looking for.
  • Try to keep “neat” edges and corners during the rolling and turning process, so the layers are properly aligned. Give the edges of the paton a scooch with your rolling pin or a bench scraper to keep straight edges and 90-degree corners.
  • Brush off excess flour before turning dough and after rolling.
  • Make clean cuts. Don’t drag your knife through the puff or twist your cutters too much, which can inhibit rise.
  • When egg washing puff pastry, try not to let extra egg wash drip down the cut edges, which can also inhibit rise.
  • Extra puff pastry dough freezes beautifully. It’s best to roll it into a sheet about 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick (similar to store-bought puff) and freeze firm on a lined baking sheet. Then you can easily wrap the sheet in plastic, then foil (and if you have a sealable plastic bag big enough, place the wrapped dough inside) and return to the freezer for up to a few months. Defrost in the refrigerator when ready to use.
  • You can also freeze well-wrapped, unbaked cut and shaped puff pastry (i.e., unbaked vols-au-vent shells). Bake from frozen, without thawing first.
  • Homemade puff pastry is precious stuff, so save any clean scraps. Stack or overlap them, rather than balling them up, to help keep the integrity of the layers. Then give them a singe “turn” and gently re-roll. Scrap puff can be used for applications where a super-high rise is not necessary (such as palmiers, cheese straws, napoleons, or even the bottom bases for your vols-au-vent).


Vol-au-vents ready to go into the oven, and then baking under a silicon mat.



Pesto fixings.

Don’t forget to cruise the Daring Bakers blogroll to see all of the creative vol-au-vents fillings other chefs chose.

Now I want to hear from you: what was your proudest culinary achievement?

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