Croissant Masters Round 3

Know what makes me happy? Croissants. Know what makes me happier? Homemade croissants. Know what makes me happiest?! HOMEMADE CROISSANTS YOU MADE!

These amazing home cooks have battled the butter, lassoed the lamination, dominated the dough, wrestled the rolling pin, and flung the flour. They committed to croissant in the Willow Bird Baking Croissant Challenge — and arose victorious (pun intended)!

Seriously, all puns aside (how long can this possibly last?), I am flooded with pride and joy every time I open my email to a new batch of readers’ freshly made croissants. If you don’t think you can make these golden pastries, think again. Below are four home cooks just like you, and they’ve all conquered the process. Will you commit to croissant? Go get the recipe for yourself! You can also see the first or second round of Croissant Masters.

Time to show off the latest Croissant Rockstars!

Clair: “They turned out really great. Buttery and flaky, a bit crisp on the outside but still soft on the inside . . . All in all, a good amount of work, something you really have to commit your day (or morning) to, but totally worth the effort.”

[see more of Clair’s croissants here.]

Amanda R.: “I never liked croissants until I tried homemade ones from your recipe, and I LOVED them. My mom kept saying that they tasted like rolls my great grandmother used to make, so it was especially meaningful to have her share that memory, all thanks to your encouragement and amazingly clear instructions for croissant making.”

Joanna: “I made some croissants today (it’s my first try) and they are delicious! Plus the video you provided was very helpful . . . my family loved them.”

Abbey C.: “I went into making these not considering that it involved two of the things I am worst at — using a rolling pin and cutting straight lines. But they were truly delicious, and I was even getting a bit better at shaping them by the end. Thanks so much for this challenge . . . I probably would never have considered making them otherwise.”

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Blueberry Walnut Bread

I’m responsible for little Byrd’s post-knee-surgery physical therapy. For the first week, it involved icing her knees, which she wasn’t thrilled about. But since then it’s involved warm compresses, massages, and gentle exercises. Essentially, my dog is getting the spa treatment. My roommate can’t hold back her laughter when she walks in on me caressing Byrd’s little shaved-bare-bottom.

Today I thought I’d mix it up a little bit. My post-surgery info said that Byrd might enjoy light swimming to exercise her knees. The bath tub looked like the perfect size; she’s only 8 pounds, after all. Maybe she’d love it.

Reality check: Byrd does not love swimming. She is terrified of swimming. The bathtub is not the perfect size. Her thrashing requires at least a lake-sized body of water, and preferably an ocean. After about 10 minutes of trying in vain to convince her that swimming was a jolly pastime that she was bred for, for goodness’ sake, my bathroom, my nightgown, my dog, and my spirits were all soaked.

Both of us ended up on the balcony, soaking wet, shivering, and snuggling for warmth and reassurance. I needed reassurance that I wasn’t the worst mother ever. She needed reassurance that she was, indeed, on dry land and not drowning.

Pups can be wonderful for reassurance, comfort, warmth . . . they love you even when you’ve just tossed them in a bathtub (disclaimer: there was no actual tossing involved, and I held onto her the whole time, despite what her sheer panic might imply). Another amazing summer comfort (and one that I sure wish I still had on hand after that bathtub fiasco) is a hearty fruit-n-nut quickbread. Fruity quickbreads are a favorite of mine when slathered with butter or maybe even torn up over a bowl of fresh oatmeal. Mmm, banana nut bread, delicious pumpkin bread, or in this case . . . blueberry bread!

I made this bread awhile back for a bake sale, but kept a slice to enjoy myself. I accidentally underbaked one loaf (and secretly enjoyed the doughy gooeyness), but once perfectly baked, the bread has a fantastic, moist crumb. It’s full of plump blueberries, nuts, and oats. It inspired me so much, I wrote a poem (what, you don’t write sonnets about your food?):

Blueberry Bramble

Bush awkward, lopsided with purple fruit –
Bountiful harvest sprung from tired roots.
Rapt is the quiet bird who nestles thus
beneath the branches, feathers plush and fluffed,
beak sky-stained with the blood of nature’s yield,
breast full of warm air drawn from o’er the field
in which I lie with you now, and we too
consume, until aching, handfuls of blue.
Later half the basket will find its way,
indoors and in the fading light of day,
into batter, the oven, between teeth,
I’ll steal your crumbs for my oatmeal, a thief
willing to be caught, bird in a briar,
hands bright blue, stained now, and throat on fire.

Karly at Buns In My Oven has posted a healthier version of this bread that substitutes some apple sauce and lowers the sugar, if you’re interested! I went all out for maximum enjoyment. Serve this in a bowl with a splash of cream or ice cream for a lovely, fresh summer dessert, or bake up a loaf for breakfast!

Blueberry Walnut Bread

Recipe by: Adapted from Betty Crocker
Yields: one loaf

2/3 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup quick-cooking or old-fashioned oats
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries (thawed and drained)
1 cup chopped walnuts

1. Heat oven to 350ºF. Grease bottom only of 8- or 9-inch loaf pan.
2. In large bowl, mix brown sugar, milk, oil and eggs with spoon. Stir in remaining ingredients except blueberries and nuts; beat 30 seconds. Fold in blueberries and nuts. Pour into pan. Sprinkle with additional oats if desired.
3. Bake 45 to 55 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean (NOTE: this took about 55 minutes or even a little longer for me). Cool 10 minutes. Loosen sides of loaf from pan; remove from pan to wire rack. Cool completely, about 2 hours, before slicing. Wrap tightly and store at room temperature up to 4 days, or refrigerate up to 10 days.

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Eggs in a French Toast Basket

This is the first of two quick, easy, delectable breakfasts that I hope you’ll add to your menu for the coming weekend. Remember how I’m trying to avoid kitchen waste? This recipe dawned on me while driving to church last Sunday, and I didn’t have to buy a single thing to make it. An overabundance of eggs and some gifted honey wheat bread were a perfect breakfast foundation, to which I only added a few spices and things I had camping out in the fridge. Et voilà: Eggs in a French Toast Basket.

Or Moon Eggs, or Cowboy Eggs, or Camp Eggs, or any of the other weirdo names Wikipedia suggests are used for this concoction. Anyway, this is not your average version of this recipe. Toast is great and all, but as I was driving, I was thinking, Wouldn’t it be nice to spruce up the toast a bit? Maybe with that fantastic Alton Brown French toast recipe?

Oh, and it was nice — very nice! Mike and I love this crisp French toast recipe, and the included egg really bumped it up a notch. There is a slight issue; namely, French toast needs longer to cook overall than the egg, so the egg did get more done than usual (the yolk wasn’t hard, but wasn’t nice and gooey either). This is just one of those recipes where you fiddle with the timing after you cook your first slice to see how things go. For instance, you might start the French toast and wait a minute or so before adding the egg to achieve a softer yolk.

Nevertheless, Mike and I were over the moon (over the moon eggs, perhaps?) for this breakfast (or brunch, really, or maybe even lunch, since we ate ours after noon!). The sweet, rich French toast and the savory, salty egg were an out-of-this-world combination when hosed down with a bit of butter and some maple syrup.

Don’t forget the bacon.

If you haven’t let yourself sit back and enjoy a nice breakfast lately, here’s your inspiration! Happy breakfasting!

Eggs in a French Toast Basket

Recipe By: Willow Bird Baking, using Alton Brown‘s French toast as a basis.
Yields: 8 pieces; about 4 servings

1 cup half-and-half
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons honey, warmed in microwave for 20 seconds
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 (1/2-inch) slices day-old or stale country loaf, brioche or challah bread (I used homemade honey wheat bread I received as a gift)
4 tablespoons butter
8 eggs for the baskets (I only used 4 eggs and made the other pieces plain French toast)

In medium size mixing bowl, whisk together the half-and-half, 3 eggs, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. You may do this the night before. When ready to cook, pour custard mixture into a pie pan and set aside.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Cut a hole out of each bread slice using a cookie cutter. Dip bread into mixture, allow to soak for 30 seconds on each side, and then remove to a cooling rack that is sitting in a sheet pan, and allow to sit for 1 to 2 minutes.

Over medium-low heat, melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a 10-inch nonstick saute pan. Place 2 slices of bread at a time into the pan, breaking an egg into each slice’s hole. Carefully salt and pepper just the egg. Cook approximately 2 to 3 minutes on the first side, until the bread is golden brown on the bottom. Carefully flip and cook 2 to 3 minutes on the remaining side. Remove from pan and place on rack in oven for a few minutes. Repeat with all 8 slices. Serve immediately with butter and maple syrup.

P.S. Byrd Update: Byrd is doing well. I’ve been icing her little knees and keeping up with her pain medication, which she hates. She’ll get her stitches out on Tuesday, June 1, but still can’t run or play until July. Difficult for such a rambunctious critter. Thank you so much for your support!

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Vegan Pumpkin Nut Bread

Babies have an uncanny ability to make you silly. We’ve all experienced the strange, instantaneous transformation: you’re walking along, the picture of respectability, when you spot bright eyes and baby CHEEKS! It’s always the cheeks that really push you over the edge. Suddenly, you’re cooing, peekabooing, vroooooming airplane spoons . . . anything for a smile, or best of all, a baby giggle!

My friend Amelia knows all too well what one will do for a baby. Her little Rowan (now 6 months old) wasn’t tolerating dairy very well, so mama had to give it up! No tall glasses of milk, no cheesy pizzas, no gooey lasagnas — and worst of all, hubby was still able to chow down! I’m going to be honest (with apologies to vegans out there): I would not be a fan of a dairy-free lifestyle. I enjoy meat, but I’d be much quicker to give it up than my beloved cheese, butter, and milk! Amelia’s a champ, though; with nary a complaint, she’s gone almost completely dairy-free for months. She deserves a mommy medal, but perhaps she’d settle for a loaf of vegan pumpkin bread?

I first spotted this beauty on Joy the Baker awhile back, when Joy admitted to sometimes searching for vegan recipes just because she’s out of butter or eggs. I love the honesty, not to mention the resourcefulness. A girl after my own heart. Gotta have sweets and gotta avoid the mid-recipe grocery store run.

This pumpkin bread was nice and moist, with a deep caramel-esque flavor from the brown sugar and maple. I added oats for more heartiness. One loaf went to Amelia, and Mike and I kept one for breakfasting. We defiled our loaf by slathering it with butter (more apologies to the vegans!), but it’d be delicious spread with cream cheese (oh wait! sorry vegans!), peanut butter, pumpkin, maple syrup, vegan margarine, mud . . . it’s just good! Just spread it with something creamy and suited to your dietary leanings, and consume!

I will say that it wasn’t as grand, in my tastebuds’ opinions, as regular old pumpkin quick bread. I think I prefer a brighter pumpkin spice flavor to the depth of the maple and brown sugar combo in this recipe. Nevertheless, if you’re out of eggs, following a vegan lifestyle, or simply avoiding dairy for a cute little imp of a babe, this is a nice, hearty option. We have the last bit of our loaf sitting in our freezer waiting for Saturday morning breakfast!

Vegan Pumpkin Walnut Bread

Recipe by: Joy the Baker, slightly adapted by Willow Bird Baking
Yields: 2 loaves

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups white whole wheat flour (or whole wheat flour, or use only all-purpose flour)
2 cups light brown sugar, packed
1/3 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree, or just under two cups
1 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup water
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup oats

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place a rack in the center of the oven. Grease and flour two loaf pans and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together flours, sugars, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices.

In a medium bowl, carefully whisk together pumpkin puree, oil, maple syrup and water. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and use a spatula to fold all of the ingredients together. Make sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl well, finding any stray flour bits to mix in. Fold in most of the chopped walnuts and oats, reserving some to sprinkle on top of the batter once in the pan.

Divide the dough between the two greased pans and sprinkle with a few walnut pieces. Bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven. Let rest in the pans for 20 minutes, then invert onto a cooling rack.

Serve warm. To freeze, double wrap in plastic wrap and then wrap in foil.


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Pumpkin Cheesecake Bread Pudding

For those of you still earnestly hanging on to New Year’s diet resolutions, grappling with temptation like Indiana Jones wrestling a greased wild boar . . . I’m sorry about this! Really! Because I did, indeed, just say pumpkin. And cheesecake. And bread pudding. All in the same dessert, y’all. You’re going to want to step away from the rice cakes and start slicing up some brioche right about now.

This is how it all began. I have a new cookbook I’ve been carting around with me and fawning over: Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters. I actually bought it as a Secret Santa gift for my Sunday school Christmas party, but then couldn’t go at the last minute. So I kept it. And was secretly really glad that I got to keep it. That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Let me explain!

Heirloom Baking is “more than 100 years of recipes discovered from family cookbooks, original journals, scraps of paper, & grandmother’s kitchen.” You know the box in your kitchen stuffed full of your great aunt Ida’s best dishes, scrawled down in her own lilting handwriting? Or the dusty, well-worn church recipe album from 1982 that includes pictures of every church member — thick-framed glasses, 80s hair and all? Those recipes are some of the best: loved and fiddled with by generations of family cooks, served annually for decades, passed down verbally or jotted on scrap paper. If you’ve ever wished you could round up all of your family recipes and solicit your friends for theirs, you’ll love Heirloom Baking, because that’s exactly what the Brass sisters have done for you.

Obviously, I am in love with this charming book. Recipes include Brass family favorites as well as personal recipes from collections the sisters found at flea markets, yard sales, used bookstores, or friends’ houses. Scattered throughout the book are gorgeous images of the original recipes, dated cookbooks, and antique bakeware. Mike and I amused ourselves for an hour flipping through pages, perusing lovely images of handwritten recipes from decades and centuries past, and drooling over the full-page photographs of delicious baked goods. Let me stop being quite such a fangirl and just say, simply, that the book was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Baking and Dessert Book Award for good reason.

Book Stats: 312 pages, $29.95 list price ($19.77 on Amazon), indexed.
Accessibility: Enough information for a beginning baker.
Examples of Recipes: Auntie Dot’s Dutch Apple Cake, Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding with Plum Jam, Louise Zimmerman’s Cookies Without a Name, Ida’s Cheese Turnovers, and various other assortments of cookies, cakes, puddings, breads, pastries, and pies.
Overall Impression: Fun to read because of such intriguing subject matter and engaging anecdotes. Full of exciting recipes and photos.
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In case you’re wondering how I managed to convince Mike to enjoy a cookbook with me for longer than a millisecond, it has a little something to do with my offer to make him anything he chose from its pages. I’m not above a little strategic bribery! It was a difficult decision, but he settled on this rustic and beautiful Pumpkin Cheesecake Bread Pudding. You already knew he had good taste, right? I hear he’s got a pretty awesome girlfriend. Just something I heard . . .

Truth is, this pudding was fantastic. Bread pudding is the soul food of dessert for me: humble, dense, and gorgeous. It’s a peasant dish in its thrift and convenience; it makes use of sometimes stale bread or cake scraps by soaking them and baking them into a filling new dish. It’s also a dish fit for royalty: luxurious, silky, warm, and indulgent. The toasty, custardy texture reminds me of the milk toast my family used to covet for breakfast each morning: buttered toast topped with cinnamon-spiked, buttery hot milk. But this bread pudding takes bread to a whole new level.

Pumpkin, spice, and cream cheese form the delicious custard base poured over and around sliced brioche (or in my case, a firm loaf of fresh-baked Italian bread from my local grocer). The best part of the pudding, though, is definitely the buttery brown sugar topping that crisps up on the top layer of bread, forming a gorgeous, golden brown layer of cinnamon toast!

Before and after baking.

The flavor combination couldn’t have been more perfect — the pumpkin was light and balanced by the cream cheese custard. Even Mike’s granddad, who is not enamored with pumpkin, said he loved the pudding. I whipped up some fresh cinnamon whipped cream (2 cups heavy cream, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, icing sugar to taste) to heap on each serving. Ice cream would also be delightful, or just pour a little cold heavy cream over your puddin’ and dig in.

Pumpkin Cheesecake Bread Pudding

Recipe by: Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters
Yields: 20 servings

For bread layers:
14 to 16 1/2-inch slices brioche or firm white bread, trimmed of crusts and cut in half
1 1/2 cups butter, melted (I only needed about a cup)

For custard:
2 8-oz. packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
6 eggs
1 15-oz. can (about 1 3/4 cups) pumpkin
2 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon

For topping:
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons butter, melted

1. Set the oven rack in the middle position. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Coat a 9-inch by 13-inch ovenproof glass baking dish with vegetable spray. Set aside a larger metal baking pan and rack for the water bath.
2. To prepare the bread: Brush each slice of brioche on both sides with melted butter.
3. To make the custard: Combine cream cheese and sugar in a bowl and mix until smooth.
4. Combine eggs, pumpkin, milk, heavy cream, vanilla, salt, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (Note: I used my hand mixer without difficulty). Beat until smooth. Add cream cheese mixture and combine.
5. Pour 1/2 cup pumpkin custard in bottom of baking dish. Tilt and swirl dish until bottom is completely covered with a thin layer of custard. Layer 6 slices of brioche on top of custard. Pour half of remaining custard over brioche. Add remaining brioche and custard in layers.
6. To add the topping: Use a knife to cut 8 slits through layered pudding. Cover top of pudding with plastic wrap and press down gently with your palm. Let stand 15 minutes. Remove plastic wrap and sprinkle brown sugar over top of pudding. Pour melted butter over sugar.
7. Place baking dish on rack in large metal pan. Pour hot water from a glass measuring cup into the outer pan until water level rises halfway up sides of baking dish. Place carefully in oven. Bake 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until top is nicely browned and custard has rise to top of baking dish (Note: I covered very loosely with foil to prevent top from getting too brown, but did not crimp foil down so as to avoid steaming the crisp topping). Check water bath occasionally and add more water if needed. Do not let the water evaporate form the water bath.
8. Carefully remove baking dish from oven and water bath. Allow pudding to cool on rack 1 hour. Serve slightly warm or cold with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Store covered with a paper towel and plastic wrap in the refrigerator.

Reprinted from Heirloom Baking with the Brass Sisters by permission of Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc. © Copyrigh 2006 Marilynn Brass and Sheila Brass.

Soaking bread, and then the whole pudding in the oven.


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